Fighting for Equity

 

Grief, Remembrance, Justice
MAR 5: A conversation about Boston activist Melnea Cass and channeling grief into a call for lasting change.
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African Americans saw some progress in their fight for equality as courts began to rule against segregation, and elected representatives passed new civil rights laws in the second half of the 20th century. However, whites often resisted these changes with violence and intimidation. In Boston, Melnea Cass (1896-1978) resurrected Attucks Day in the 1970s to connect Attucks’s sacrifice to African Americans’ contemporary fight against inequality. Attucks Day became a powerful platform for Blacks to stake their claims for dignity and opportunity in the face of white backlash around school desegregation in the city.

PORTRAIT OF MELNEA AGNES CASS
PORTRAIT OF MELNEA AGNES CASS

PORTRAIT OF MELNEA AGNES CASS
Photographer unknown

Undated
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of Northeastern University Library

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Melnea Cass (1896-1978) was a prominent civil rights activist in Boston. Her work was inspired by Rosa Brown, her mother-in-law and a civic organizer. As a young woman during the 1920s, Cass was an active member of the National Equal Rights League (NERL) and participated in many protests organized by William Monroe Trotter. Cass eventually became president of NERL and collaborated with others in the 1960s and 1970s to fight employment discrimination, unfair housing policy, and school segregation. Boston celebrates Melnea Cass Day on May 22nd.

National Fight for Integration

The concept of “separate but equal” was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The court found that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, which challenged the legal basis for segregation across the United States.

For the next three decades, courts around the nation ordered the desegregation of American schools and struck down laws and policies that discriminated against Blacks. However, these changes were often met with opposition from whites. The modern civil rights movement expanded as Black communities used nonviolent protest to challenge institutions that refused to comply. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 emerged from this movement, which changed the economic, political, and social life of all Americans.

In Massachusetts, public places, including schools, were legally desegregated in the 19th century, and free African American men could vote as early as 1787. However, segregation, disfranchisement, and discrimination were rampant in Boston despite the law. Boston’s public schools, in particular, were segregated along racial and ethnic lines.

U.S. MARSHALS WITH YOUNG RUBY BRIDGES ON SCHOOL STEPS
U.S. MARSHALS WITH YOUNG RUBY BRIDGES ON SCHOOL STEPS

U.S. MARSHALS WITH YOUNG RUBY BRIDGES ON SCHOOL STEPS

Uncredited DOJ (Department of Justice) Photographer

c. November 1960
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Black children like Ruby Bridges (1954- ) in Louisiana and the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas were the first to legally desegregate public schools. Armed federal troops were ultimately needed to protect the children from violence and threats from whites.

A Deepening Conflict

Melnea Cass rallied activists outside the Old State House on Attucks Day during the 200th anniversary of the Boston Massacre in March 1970. The event took place in a deepening conflict over school desegregation in the city. Boston did not integrate its schools after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Black parents, assisted by the local NAACP and the NERL, drafted legislation to force the state to investigate racial imbalance in schools. A commission suggested redistricting, but the Boston School Board refused to discuss the proposal.

Massachusetts responded by passing the Racial Imbalance Act in 1965, which ordered schools to integrate. In tandem, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Boston School Committee, setting off a nine-year court case that would ultimately result in violent conflicts on Boston’s streets.

MELNEA CASS SPEAKS IN FRONT OF THE OLD STATE HOUSE ON CRISPUS ATTUCKS DAY
MELNEA CASS SPEAKS IN FRONT OF THE OLD STATE HOUSE ON CRISPUS ATTUCKS DAY

MELNEA CASS SPEAKS IN FRONT OF THE OLD STATE HOUSE ON CRISPUS ATTUCKS DAYEd Farrand

March 4, 1970
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of Getty Images

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A City Torn Apart

In 1974, a federal court ordered Boston to integrate its school system by busing students across district lines. The response from the white community was angry and often violent throughout the 1970s. White parents and children attacked Black students as they rode buses to their new schools, and riots erupted in East and South Boston. Many whites argued against desegregation by portraying Blacks as racially inferior and inherently “un-American.”

As the country celebrated America’s bicentennial and anti-busing riots worsened, Cass and other activists used Crispus Attucks Day on March 5, 1976, to continue their protest against public school segregation and employment discrimination in the face of white violence. Boston eventually ended its busing efforts and continues to struggle with racial segregation and injustice.

THE SOILING OF OLD GLORY
THE SOILING OF OLD GLORY

THE SOILING OF OLD GLORY
Stanley Forman (1945-)April 5, 1976
Photograph
Loan courtesy of Stanleyformanphotos.com

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Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph captures a brief but unforgettable moment during the unrest over school desegregation in Boston.

In April 1976, lawyer Ted Landsmark (1946-) was attacked on his way to City Hall, a block from the Boston Massacre site, by anti-integration protesters including Joseph Rakes (c. 1959-), the young man swinging the American flag in the photograph. After helping Landsmark to his feet, James Kelly (1940-2007), who opposed busing, stepped in to shield him from further harm. Landsmark went on to become a prominent civil rights activist in Boston, where he continues his work today.

 

MELNEA CASS AT CRISPUS ATTUCKS MEMORIAL FOR BOSTON MASSACRE COMMEMORATION
MELNEA CASS AT CRISPUS ATTUCKS MEMORIAL FOR BOSTON MASSACRE COMMEMORATION

MELNEA CASS AT CRISPUS ATTUCKS MEMORIAL FOR BOSTON MASSACRE COMMEMORATIONMayor’s Office of Public Service, City of Boston

March 5, 1976
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of the City of Boston Archives

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A Contested Legacy

In the 1960s, African American activists were increasingly split over whether to pursue civil rights through nonviolent or militant protest. Attucks was hailed for championing the oppressed and criticized for fighting for whites rather than enslaved Blacks.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., STOKELY CARMICHAEL, MEREDITH MARCH AGAINST FEAR, 1966
MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., STOKELY CARMICHAEL, MEREDITH MARCH AGAINST FEAR, 1966

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., STOKELY CARMICHAEL, MEREDITH MARCH AGAINST FEAR, 1966Bob Fitch (1939-2016)

1966
Photograph
Reproduction courtesy of the Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

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