Friday, September 8, 2017

Ted Kennedy, Anti-Busing Violence, and the Firebombing of the JFK Birthplace (Part II)

On Monday, September 8, 1975 (42 years ago today), someone firebombed JFK’s birthplace in Brookline, near Boston, Massachusetts.  But was the fire-bombing directly connected to the busing crisis in Boston?

It was the first day of school for children in Boston.  The city was engulfed in protests, police strikes, and anxiety about busing.  Some of that spilled over into Brookline. 

Senator Ted Kennedy supported busing, despite consistent and sometimes physical opposition from black and white Bostonians. White anti-busing protestors blocked him from reaching his car at an invited speech, slashed his tires in broad day-light, "jabbed at him with American flags," hit him with their fists, and threw rocks at him.  In one altercation, after voices in an anti-busing crowd screamed at Senator Kennedy, “Why don’t you put your one-legged son on a bus for Roxbury,” “Let your daughter get bused there so she can get raped,” and “Why don’t you let them shoot you like they shot your two brothers,” members of the crowd aimed tomatoes and eggs at him, and he sought shelter in the John F. Kennedy Building Federal Building.  After he made it inside, the crowd “pounded on the plate glass windows” and broke one.[1] 

But that Monday, sometime after the JFK Birthplace closed for the day and before the firebomb ignited the historic site, someone scrawled “Bus Teddy” on the sidewalk in front of the house.[2] 

Paradoxically, Edward “Teddy” Kennedy had never lived at 83 Beals Street; he was born after his family had moved away.  The national historic site was an unlucky symbol, pointing to the fact that the Kennedys, though Bostonians by reputation, had always raised their children outside the public school system of the city that they called home.  Ted Kennedy was, and also came to symbolize, the white, elite Bostonians who decided the fate of the city’s children.  Brookline had model schools, spending near state-high levels per student to ensure, and please, a highly educated population.

Public response quickly condemned the fire-bombing as an “affront to the nation.”[3]  After the 1975 fire, it seems physical attacks against Senator Kennedy stopped. 

But busing didn’t suddenly become popular among white or black Bostonians.  In fact the violence associated with white anti-busing protests wouldn’t subside for almost a year.  Many of us may have seen images of African American attorney Ted Landsmark as he was attacked with an American flag by a teen protestor after an anti-busing rally in April of 1976 in Boston.  There was violence all over the city in the weeks after photos of the attack were circulated widely. By the fall of 1976, most of the protests had stopped, but not because Bostonians had accepted bussing.  By 1979, 30,000 students had left the Boston school system, among them at least 1/3 of the white students in the school district.[4]

Next Up: The Damage and the Investigation

[1] Bob Sales, “Sen. Kennedy Jeered from Stage at Rally: Antibusing Crowd Throws Tomatoes, Eggs,” Boston Globe, September 10, 1974, p. 1.  Jerimiah V. Murphy, “The Day the Crowd Booed a Kennedy in Boston” Boston Globe, September 10, 1974, p.23.  See also Peter Anderson, “Bus Foes Shout Down Kennedy at Hub Hearing on Airline Fares,” Boston Globe, February 15, 1975, p. 1; Curtis Wilkie, “Busing Foes again Heckle Kennedy in Boston,” Boston Globe, March 8, 1975, p. 5; Richard Martin and Robert Rosenthal, “Kennedy Jostled, Rushed by Crowd of Busing Foes in Quincy,” Boston Globe, April 7, 1975; Ken Boatwright, “ROAR Vows to Continue Confronting Se. Kennedy,” Boston Globe, April 8, 1975, p.1; Boston Globe Editorial Statement, “Assaults of Sen. Kennedy,” April 8, 1975, p. 26.
[2] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Kennedy Fire Investigation – (9/8/75) Report,” Folder 14, Box 4, JFKNHS, Resource Management Records, 1963-2003, Series I. Management/Administrative Files; A. Central Files, A2615-A8215, Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 21.
[3] “JFK Site firebombing Shocks Neighbors” and “An Outrage” Viewpoint (editorial) Boston Herald American, September 9, 1975. 
[4] Many scholars have summarized the complicated history of busing in Boston much better than I can here.  Please seek out Matt Delmont’s Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (2016) and Jim Vrabel’s A People’s History of the New Boston (2014) as starting points.

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