Both Sides Now

Originally Published 10/03/2011

Photo Source: Stanley Forman

I.

Catherine Cummings sat at the little table looking out the back window at the fire escape. The flowers on the rail needed to be watered, but she couldn’t find the energy to get up and do it. She felt weighed down lately with all the craziness and worry. What was going to happen to Charlestown High? What was going to happen to Charlestown? What was going to happen to those poor Negro kids being bussed in from Roxbury?

She felt bad for them. Some smart guy federal judge ordered bussing for 1975 in order to achieve racial balance in the Boston school system. Some federal judge probably never stepped foot in Charlestown, OR Roxbury, for that matter, thinks he knows what it’s like here. None of the Negro kids had a choice, and none of the Charlestown kids had a choice. Judge Garrity said, and that’s that.

And it’s not like the kids in Charlestown had it so much better than the kids in the ghetto! Charlestown was poor Irish Catholic. Catherine was raising four kids by working as a maid, assembling ice cream cartons at the Schrafft’s factory and collecting her pension, having lost her dear Danny to NVA crossfire on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, March 19th, 1971. If Judge Garrity thought that Charlestown was some kind of promised land, he had another thing coming!

Catherine didn’t want any of the kids to be violent or anything, she didn’t want to see anybody get hurt, but in a way, The Town was being invaded. Sure, the kids didn’t want to come here. But they were, and nobody had a say in it. What the hell did that crazy judge think was going to happen? Of course it was going to be ugly. Of course our kids were going to feel like they had to defend our turf! What if Judge Garrity’s court was taken over by a bunch of Negros without his say? How would he feel? He’d probably come down a peg or two, that’s how he’d feel! So why was it going on here? Why now, when her kids were about to graduate and find themselves?

Catherine didn’t hate Negros at all, but she didn’t understand why they should be forced to go to school in Charlestown just because some damn ignorant judge said that her town was racially imbalanced. It was too much to think about. She didn’t want to have to face all this. It was so much easier before.

II.

Dinah Jelks felt sick with worry. Her kids were about to be bussed all the way across town into a hostile white school, and there was nothing she could do about it. She knew that they would be okay: Jack and Rosa were great kids, with great heads on their shoulders. But she was worried for EVERYBODY that was involved in this foolishness. It was terrifying. She had seen enough on the TV to know that Charlestown would not be welcoming to her kids. It was going to be a war zone as soon as they stepped off that bus.

Her babies were going to be ripped out of the only world, the only schools, the only friends they had ever known. They were going to be riding a bus for a good forty-five minutes each way, when their longest bus ride before had been twenty minutes. At the end of that forty-five minute bus ride, they would be stepping into a foreign white neighborhood, and going to a foreign white school with a bunch of white folks that didn’t want them there.

And what kind of education were they going to get at that Charlestown school? How was it any better than the Evers school? Just because it was white? And this was supposed to fix the conditions at Boston’s black schools? Were black fifth graders in Roxbury going to be getting new desks and books and windows in their schools just because the school system would now be racially equal? No. Would her babies be getting a better education in that old mean school in Charlestown that didn’t even have a cafeteria? How did this help? This was madness, plain and simple.

And how were her kids going to get along with white kids? She had heard some of them on the radio, and it sounded like a bad atmosphere. All she could hope was that Jack and Rosa would remember who they were, and how they were raised. She prayed for them often, and she always invoked the messages that Martin Luther taught. Dinah really believed that they would overcome: she really believed that they would make that Promised Land. Just go about your business, don’t make a scene, and try your best, and it would be all right. She believed it. She knew that her babies believed it. She just worried that the message hadn’t quite made it to Charlestown. Lord, what a worrisome thing.

She poured a cup from the percolator and stared out the window at the corner of Mass Ave and Tremont. Looking right, she could see the Park Street Church way off in the distance. She knew that the Declaration of Independence was read there, and that William Lloyd Garrison had spoken there and that it had been a garrison during olden times. Right next to the church, right off Boston Common, was the Granary Burial Grounds. John Hancock was there, along with Paul Revere, James Otis and Crispus Attucks. Cradle of Liberty. And just beyond all of that, just out of her view across the Mystic River was Charlestown. Dinah knew that the Bunker Hill monument stood there, and that the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides, was docked there.

This was where freedom was born, right? We should all be free by now, right? So why were her kids about to lose all their freedom? It was hard to understand. This country was almost two hundred years old, and it felt like we were still riding in the back of the bus and eating at separate counters. And now it was getting worse, and nobody was going to come out ahead. It was just foolishness. Dinah sat in her window, gazed off at the church in the distance, and fretted how it was all going to turn out.

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