Uncommon ground

J. Anthony Lukas realized something larger than the truth

The American dilemma Residents of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood react to forced busing in 1975. (Alex Webb via Magnum Photos)

In the fall of 1974, black schoolchildren from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood climbed into school buses bound for South Boston, the heart of the “riff-raff” Irish working classes. White “Townies” from Charlestown had scrawled “Kill Niggers” on apartment walls and set fire to straw effigies with black garbage-bag heads. Buses were burned, rocks hurled. Death threats and mutual resentment followed the black children into the school hallways and classrooms that first day, and for incendiary months to come.

Court-ordered busing that was meant to reverse stubborn de facto school segregation nearly ripped apart the social fabric of that historic city. It exposed the raw residue of Yankee guilt, black anger, and Irish immigrant antipathy—the churning clash of cultures that defines America. The country’s racial enmity showed its ugliest face not on the steps of an Arkansas high school this time, but in genteel Boston, the intellectual capital of the abolitionist movement, the “cradle of liberty.”

Into this firestorm walked J. Anthony Lukas, a reporter’s reporter with a fierce curiosity and an endless capacity to inhabit the lives of his subjects—to plumb the depths of the “tribal histories” that trailed behind them. He wasn’t so much looking for truth in its purest sense, or the quaint satisfaction of solutions, as for something much bigger, much messier. He was looking to understand the fundamental roots of America’s fears and tensions, where they originated, why they are so often about race.

More than seven years later, Lukas emerged with a 650-page masterpiece that defies definition. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families is a work of historic nonfiction about Boston’s school busing crisis from 1968 to 1978. That’s the catalogue-card version. It is also an ambitious tableau reaching back in time to the beginnings of Puritan America, through the civil rights era to the present, circling back to the origins of slavery, of Ireland’s turmoil, and of church history, legal history, the press, and urban politics.

Describing his intellectual journey, Lukas told one interviewer, “The book didn’t take me from left to right or from right to left, but from the party of simplicity to the party of complexity.” It’s a definition of objectivity.

Lukas probably had no intention of writing the great American education story. But no nonfiction narrative journalist has touched his genius on the subject since. His newspaper career up to that point had taken him from covering crime in Baltimore and politics in Chicago, to foreign conflicts in the Congo, Pakistan, India, and South Africa. For much of that time he worked for The New York Times and its Sunday magazine. His previous freelance project had entangled him in the drama of Watergate for a book he called Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. Restless on his lofty perch looking down on the world’s and the nation’s politics, Lukas wanted instead to pull his reporter’s chair up to the kitchen tables of ordinary Americans, to enter their lives and their minds.

His inspiration for Common Ground came from the news. Senator Ted Kennedy had been driven from a speaker’s platform by an angry mob of Irish Catholics incensed by his support for school integration. He was forced to take refuge in a nearby federal building—one named after his brother John. “What in the world is going on when Ted Kennedy is driven to shelter by his ‘own people?’” Lukas remembered asking himself at the time. “‘What in the world’ is a pretty good starting place for a story.”

That world, Lukas intuited, would lead him into the heart of the American dilemma: the tattered promise of an equal shot at prosperity and education for all, for descendants of slaves as well as immigrant strivers. What happens when institutions like public schools are asked to shoulder the weight of racial disparities and disappointments? Who wins, who loses? Lukas decided to enter that world as close to the ground as a journalist could, through the deeply flawed lives of ordinary Bostonians—a poor, passionate black mother of six; a working-class Irish Catholic mother of seven; and a privileged Yankee couple dedicated to making integration work.

Lukas not only defined the education issue of our time but also located its center of gravity: inside neighborhoods, public schools, families’ homes, and people’s minds. And his book reminds us just how far our focus has strayed. As the late author and journalist Herbert Mitgang said, “I believe that what happened in Boston was not a random series of events but the acting out of the burden of American history.”

Reading Common Ground when it first came out was exhilarating. It felt almost like attending a sweeping seminar on everything you need to know about America, with a spellbinding storyteller at the podium. Boston’s wounds were still relatively raw. Hostilities still crackled. There was an urgency to understand what just happened.

For those who lived in the midst of the riots, it was a revelation. One journalist who grew up poor and Irish Catholic in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood recently told me he never understood what all the turmoil was about until he read the book. “Common Ground changed the way I saw my origins,” said Kerry Burke, a longtime crime reporter at the New York Daily News. As a child, Burke was bused from one have-not neighborhood to another for elementary and middle school. “It was the difference between being from nowhere and then realizing I had lived through the death of the civil rights movement.”

Reading it today is still as daunting as it is inspiring. It feels, in the end, close to an act of despair. There is considerable evidence that creating district-wide diversity can be a powerful reform tool, but few reformers now consider it seriously. Mixing rich and poor, black and white children in classrooms is thought to be a dusty notion from a naïve time. It reminds us that the conversation that used to be so open has turned inward.

National school-reform notions from our last decade still wrap themselves in the rhetoric of civil rights. President George W. Bush codified “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and “closing the black-white achievement gap” in his signature No Child Left Behind policy. The preferred means to the end are now top-down management tools: rating teachers, adding layers of tests, closing failing schools, creating a scattershot collection of privately-run public charters in their stead.

Busing programs have slowly been dismantled across the nation. No federal incentives encourage districts to create equity across their populations. Today, about one-third of black and Latino children are attending racially isolated schools. Child poverty inches up every year. It’s not exactly the outcome the US Supreme Court justices envisioned when they ruled in 1954 that separate schools were inherently unequal. And the achievement gap between the races, after narrowing somewhat in the 1980s, is now wider than ever. What did Boston really endure, and for what?

Readers talk about “devouring” books. That’s how I remember my first encounter with Common Ground in 1985, the year it was published. I carted the weighty tome around New York City, stealing reading time when I could on long subway rides. The screeching clatter of the train provided an appropriate soundtrack for the urgency in my head.

Reading it again takes me back not just to Boston, but to the Bronx, where my son attended kindergarten in the public school on the corner when I was a rookie freelancer for The Village Voice. From the first day I gazed through the wire fence watching children line up by size in the schoolyard, I realized that this overcrowded elementary school was a minefield of problems and untold stories.

Scores of buses drove in and out of the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood in relative peace, dropping off Hispanic and African-American children from the South Bronx—the “busers,” they were called. Joining them were the mostly white “walkers” from the surrounding middle-class neighborhoods. If integration was the purpose, it disintegrated as soon as the children entered the classrooms. By first grade they were already sorted by so-called ability, a predictable proxy for race. The top first-grade classes with the strongest teachers were mostly white neighborhood kids. The bottom classes with the least experienced teachers were mostly low-income nonwhites from south of Fordham Road. Their education destinies were determined by age 6.

Racial segregation had moved quietly, with a wink and a nod, inside the schoolhouse doors. School administrators insisted there was no deliberate effort to track children by race. The principal distrusted the white parents who raised objections. After all, white families had options. Many had finagled transfers for their children to a wealthier, whiter, elementary school in Riverdale. There was a tacit acceptance of the assumption that true integration was impossible to achieve.

I was a fairly recent transplant from Iowa, at a loss to make sense of the hostilities flaring up between the principal and the cultural stew of parents. Racial friction seemed to be everywhere, but acknowledged nowhere. I plowed through Common Ground searching for answers, trying to understand the historical and legal roots of urban racial tensions. If Lukas’ account of the Boston riots didn’t exactly change my life, it gave it a swift kick down an untraveled road.

I had a moment of recognition when I read that Joan and Colin Diver, the Harvard-educated gentrifiers in Common Ground, moved to the South End and helped create a model school for integrated education. I had also joined a group of progressive parents and educators who created a public school in the Bronx that mixed children by race in every grade. Both my children attended. An endgame seemed possible.

I realize now that I read Common Ground far too quickly nearly 30 years ago, and possibly for the wrong reasons. Common Ground is not the kind of book that can be sifted for quick truths. Lukas resists the typical critic’s insistence that works of social-policy journalism must come complete with a checklist of pat solutions. Any understanding that emerges from his book, he once said, should “seep out through the interstices of the three families.”

It demands a more measured, patient reader. Given this second chance, I understood more clearly how his technique serves his purpose. Lukas tips us off on page one that Common Ground will be full of surprises. He defies expectations by providing no prologue, no roadmap laying out the book’s themes and motivations. Instead, he launches right into the story, almost daring readers to hitch along for the journey.

We might expect the book to open with one of the explosive riots that were synonymous in the public’s mind with Boston and busing. Instead, it begins with a quiet Cambridge scene inside the study of Colin Diver. He is contemplating his future after he graduates from Harvard Law School. This is the opening sentence: “Sunlight struck the gnarled limbs outside his window, casting a thicket of light and shadow on the white clapboards.”

It’s cinematic, in a gently menacing way. But it hardly signals the provocative book we are about to read. I worried for a brief moment that Lukas had chosen a pipe-smoking good-government voice to stand in for the author as the book’s wise and whitewashed narrator. But within a few pages we were deep into the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and hurtling headlong into the startling findings of the Kerner Commission report:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. . . . What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, white society condones it.

It’s vintage Lukas, circling around his subject, tugging at myriad narrative threads, and then swooping in for the kill, all the while painting a portrait of Boston, capturing its mood, its hostilities, its ethnic eccentricities, its politics and power structures, as well as its schools.

Then, in quick succession, each of the other two families is corralled into the same metaphorical space: the moment they all learned of Dr. King’s assassination. Rachel Twymon, a black mother originally from Roxbury, was carefully chosen to represent the presumed benefactors of busing; Alice McGoff was the working-class, Irish-Catholic resister. Add Diver and you have a classic formula that is particularly suited to policy nonfiction: anchoring a sprawling narrative in the lives of three—always three—ordinary people. If Lukas did not invent the model, then he certainly perfected it.

Social-justice journalism has many perils, most prominent among them the reporter’s inclination to line up villains and saints, and cast judgments accordingly. Where the writer’s sympathies lie is rarely a mystery. Lukas’ gift is that he never tips his hand and yet never loses his moral footing. Everyone knows how a Harvard-educated liberal from an upper-middle-class family is expected to react to nativist race baiting, or to a mob of teens spearing a random black pedestrian with an American flag. Yet Lukas manages to step into all his subjects’ lives armed with wisdom, never judgment, and never sacrificing a sharp analytic focus.

In fact, he is at his best when faced with untangling the contradictions of his characters and institutions. In his hands, Louise Day Hicks, the white-gloved “two-toilet Irish” School Committee chairwoman, is both the Bull Connor of Boston and the Lady Bountiful. The “Powder Keg” activists of Charlestown are either mavericks or mindless rioters. In my favorite section he turns his lens on The Boston Globe, accusing it of playing it safe with its busing coverage in a misguided attempt not to offend anyone. The veiled implication is that its anodyne coverage was a calculated attempt to win the Pulitzer Prize, which the paper eventually did—and Lukas did as well, for Common Ground.

Lukas keeps readers off balance with his pace and structure. He may head dutifully down a chronological path, marching to the next School Committee meeting, the next violent confrontation, but then he whirls back in time, sometimes 400 years, to fill in the context. One minute Rachel Twymon, the black mother of six, is weeping in her Roxbury apartment over the murder of King. By the next Twymon chapter we are in 1619 on a sandy spit in Virginia where the first “Negar” slaves landed. Lukas pauses for long stretches to tell us about congressional politics in the days of “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, or the relationship of the Irish Catholic Church to the French Revolution.

It’s a tribute to Lukas’ storytelling skills that readers are pulled along with him, following what seems to be a relentless curiosity. He is never satisfied. How much is dedication to the craft, how much deep-rooted obsession? Lukas’ legendary intensity could seem extreme, in ways that sends chills down the spines of the average journalist.

Early on in his reporting, he chose one anti-busing family from Charlestown and followed them for four years, before deciding they weren’t right for his story. They were fanatics, he told an interviewer, which was more suited to a Dostoevsky novel than Lukas’ epic work. So he started from scratch with more moderate “Townies,” the McGoffs. Four years of reporting, gone.

Tony Lukas was a large-framed man. It’s difficult to imagine him settling into Alice McGoff’s kitchen in his 1950s-style tweed jacket as seven children clamored for attention. Still, it’s obvious from his incisive portrayals that he gained her trust and that of all his interview subjects. One telling glimpse into his methods and motivations came later in his own words, in an interview with the National Book Foundation in 1985. “Writers, I think, are, to one extent or another, damaged people,” he told the interviewer. “Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. In my own case, I was filling a hole in my life, which opened at the age of eight when my mother killed herself, throwing our family into utter disarray. That’s one reason the book worked: I wasn’t just writing a book about busing. I was filling a hole in myself.”

In the last three pages of Common Ground, Lukas predicts the next consequence of this social experiment: white guilt, white flight. When Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity Jr. began examining Boston’s dilemma in 1972, some 90,000 students were enrolled in the city’s public schools, roughly 60 percent of them white. Four years later, 20,000 white children had transferred to parochial or private schools, or had left the city altogether. By 1976, Boston schools were 55-percent white. Today, Boston’s white school population is down to 13 percent; only 22 percent come from middle-class or affluent homes.

Colin and Joan Diver joined the exodus in the late ’70s, a capitulation so painful that it sent Joan to a doctor’s office literally gasping for air. They abandoned their diverse school for a home in a leafy suburb. Colin had reached his limit when he found himself armed with a baseball bat, chasing a mugger down his street.

The book ends with Colin reconstructing the 17th-century white picket fence around his Newton house, “the intricate junction of peg and hole sealing off the Divers’ perimeter, rearing its ivory spine against the world.” The image is eerily prescient. The white flight trend would continue, leaving many convinced that forced busing was the reason racial isolation in cities eventually became worse. But it’s too easy to draw a straight causal line. New York City, for example, chose neighborhood control over cross-district busing in the late ’60s, and its white population fled public schools as well. Today the city’s public schools are 85-percent black and Latino, and overwhelmingly poor, and its elite options are whiter and more Asian than ever before.

Mayor Thomas Menino finally ended Boston’s busing in March 2013, amid warnings that a return to neighborhood schools would inevitably lead to clustering the poorest students in the schools least prepared to help them succeed.

And yet only a few local community folks are taking the death of integration seriously. As journalist Dana Goldstein pointed out in The Atlantic, Boston’s volatile legacy of mandatory busing gone wrong has obfuscated the real benefits of busing for integration when it’s done right. One model that has worked with some success in Hartford, CT, mixes high-quality magnet schools with voluntary busing; good schools draw suburban kids into blighted areas, and inner-city kids are bused out to fill their newly open seats. A variation on that theme has worked for more than 40 years in Raleigh, NC’s Wake County School District.

Lukas also forecast the current consuming debate over income inequality. Wherever Colin looked, Lukas wrote in the final pages, he saw legal remedies undercut by social and economic realities—“The terrible gap between the rich and the poor, the suburb and the city, the hopeful and the hopeless.” Pioneering research at Stanford has proved him right: Sean Reardon found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40-percent larger today than it was 30 years ago.

Yet the education reforms favored by the last two White House administrations have aggressively avoided any policies designed to remedy the disparities. Instead, the most popular charter school networks champion a “no excuses” curriculum, which is based on the belief that educators use poverty as an excuse to avoid offering rigorous teaching to minority children. President Obama’s signature Race to the Top policy places a premium on creating charters and ranking teachers based on student test scores. No incentives are built in for districts that are raising achievement scores through large-scale integration.

One wonders what Lukas would have to say about this new technocratic climate. Common Ground is long overdue for a modern sequel. Tragically, Lukas died in 1997. He killed himself after submitting the final manuscript for his last book, Big Trouble, about the trial of a labor leader for the murder of an Idaho governor. Anthony Lukas was a perfectionist in a world that is far from perfect. Common Ground is probably as close to that ideal as journalism can get. 

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LynNell Hancock is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and director of the school's Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism.