The Fight for Equal Education Continues: Morgan v. Hennigan

This article is part of the series "Desegregation in the Cradle of Liberty." This series explores the Black struggle for equal education in Boston from 1787 to 1976, culminating with protests and violence experienced under forced busing in Boston in the 1970s.

After years of activism, advocacy, and legislative action, the 1974 case Morgan v. Hennigan determined that unconstitutional segregation occurred in Boston. Brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against the Boston Public Schools, the case culminated over a decade of work by Boston's Black community.

Black Education Movement activists of the 1960s in Boston advocated for equal access to education through petitions, protests, and boycotts. When those did not achieve the desired results, they turned to legislative action, which resulted in the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965.

Despite these efforts, the Boston School Committee refused to acknowledge the racial segregation of schools and did not take any action to help improve education access for Black students. In response to this refusal, Black leaders turned to the courts. The NAACP brought a lawsuit against the Boston School Committee, which became widely known as the Morgan v. Hennigan case.

Named for Tallulah Morgan, a Black mother of three students, and Boston School Committee Chairman Jim Hennigan, this case made its way to the U.S. District Court in 1972, overseen by Judge W. Arthur Garrity. Fourteen families, including the Mogans, sued the Boston School Committee. They argued the committtee failed to comply with the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act.

Boston Globe frontpage from June 22, 1974 covering Judge Garrity's school desegregation decision
Boston Globe coverage of Judge Garrity's announcing results of Morgan v. Hennigan

The Boston Globe, June 22, 1974

After two years of hearings and reviewing the state of the schools, on June 21, 1974, Judge Garrity ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Tallulah Morgan and the 13 other families. He found:

the school authorities had knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers and school facilities and had intentionally brought about or maintained a dual school system; that the entire school system of Boston was unconstitutionally segregated.[1]

Though many criticized the ruling, others acknowledged its merits. Historian Jim Vabrel stated:

A close look at the evidence in the case makes it impossible to criticize Garrity’s decision. It shows that all the while the committee was denying the existence of de facto segregation,[2] it had actually been practicing de jure segregation,[3] even resorting to busing students – black and white- to schools other than those closest to their homes.[4]
With the new school year set to start in less than ten weeks, Judge Garrity ordered a plan to satisfy the terms of the state's Racial Imbalance Law. Phase 1 of this plan included busing students between the White community of South Boston and the Black community of Roxbury, as two of the most "geographically isolated" and racial segregated areas of Boston.[5]

Widespread Protest

Protest quickly spread throughout Boston, from City Hall to Dorchester Heights, in response to Garrity's plan. Parents did not want their children bused out of their neighborhood. The critiques also focused on the pairing of South Boston and Roxbury. Many Black parents did not think going to South Boston, another working-class neighborhood, created the educational opportunities they advocated for. Ruth Batson, a leader of the Black Education Movement, recalled the mix of reactions:

There were black people and a lot of our friends who said, "Ruth, why don’t we get them to fix up the schools and make them better in our district?" And, of course, that repelled us because we came through the separate but equal theory. This was not something that we believed in. Even now, when I talk to a lot of people, they say we were wrong in pushing for desegregation. But there was a very practical reason to do it in those days. We knew that there was more money being spent in certain schools, white schools – not all of them, but in certain white schools – than there was being spent in black schools. So therefore, our theory was move our kids into those schools where they’re putting all of the resources so that they can get a better education.[6]

While the protest against Garrity's "forced busing" plan initially focused on maintaining neighborhood schools, it quickly transformed and exposed the overt racism of many in the White community. Boston City Council Member, and former member of the Boston School Committee, Louise Day Hicks, South Boston State Senator "Billy" Bulger, and South Boston State Representative Michael Flaherty released a 'Declaration of Clarification' against Garrity's plan:

It is against our children’s best interest to send them to school in crime-infested Roxbury. That is the issue. All of the rest is only a distraction.... There are at least one hundred Black people walking around in the Black community who have killed white people during the past two years.... Any well informed white suburban woman does not pass through that community alone, not even by automobile.[7]

Busing Begins

On the morning of September 9, 1974, school buses rolled across Boston in Phase 1 of Judge Garrity’s desegregation plan. This represented the worst-case scenario for opponents of desegregation and for many parents who did not want their children removed from neighborhood schools.

Black and white photo of school buses with police escort
Police escorted school buses on first day of court-ordered busing in South Boston

Boston Public Library

On that first day of school, all eyes focused on South Boston High School. Restore our Alienated Rights (ROAR), an antibusing group led by Louise Day Hicks, called for White parents to keep their children home from school. Though the school committee had deemed these types of boycotts illegal when the Black community engaged in them ten years earlier, Hicks (formerly of the Boston School Committee) and others now embraced these civil rights era tactics.[8]

Under the shadow of the Dorchester Heights Monument, a crowd of several hundred White students and adults gathered at South Boston High School to protest the Black students attending the school. Only 56 of the assigned 800 Black students showed up, partially out of fear. The buses received a police escort to South Boston High School as protestors threw rocks and bottles at the buses, breaking windows and yelling racial slurs at the Black students, as they drove past.[9]

Busing Continues

For the next school year, 1975-1976, Garrity ordered a new plan, called the "McCormack Plan." This plan became the permanent mechanism to integrate schools. Intended to be an improvement of the original plan, this new plan now included the entire city of Boston, instead of just South Boston and Roxbury.

When this plan went into effect, other neighborhoods and community groups, such as those in East Boston and Charlestown, similarly attempted to thwart desegregation efforts. As with South Boston, these attempts often turned hostile and exposed the racial divide in the city even more.

Despite the protests, violence, and national attention, busing continued with an official mandate for almost a decade, finally ending in 1982 when Judge Garrity turned monitoring over to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, and giving his final order in 1985.[10] The community divides and hostility that formed during the attempts to desegregate Boston's schools in the 1970s and beyond have had a lasting impact on the city. Efforts remain ongoing to heal these divides, with the fifty-year anniversary of Morgan v. Hennigan occurring in 2024.


[1] "The Boston School Decision Published by: The Community Action Committee of Paperback Booksmith" from Ruth Baston in The Black Educational Movement in Boston: A Sequence of Historical Events: A Chronology, (Northeastern University School of Education, 2001), 377.

[2] De facto segregation is racial segregation that happens despite any legislative policy in place.

[3] De jure segregation is segregation that is imposed by rules, in this case policy from the Boston School Committee.

[4] Jim Vabrel, A People’s History of the New Boston, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 176.

[5] Vabrel, A People’s History of the New Boston, 178.

[6] Zebulon Vance Miletsky, Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle, (University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 166.

[7] "Declaration of Clarification" published in Jon Hillson's "The Battle of Boston: Busing and the Struggle for School Desegregation" from Ruth Baston in The Black Educational Movement in Boston: A Sequence of Historical Events: A Chronology, (Northeastern University School of Education, 2001), 381.

[8] Vabrel, A People’s History of the New Boston, 179.

[9] Vabrel, A People’s History of the New Boston, 179.

[10] Ronald Formisano, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s , (The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 213.

Boston National Historical Park, Boston African American National Historic Site

Last updated: May 31, 2024