W. Arthur Garrity Jr., the federal judge whose order to desegregate Boston’s public schools triggered mob violence and an image of bigotry in the city that prided itself on being the cradle of American liberty, died Thursday of cancer.
Garrity’s death at 79 came two months after the Boston school board voted to end busing for integration, 25 years after Garrity’s order launched a tumultuous period in the city’s history.
The Boston desegregation case was considered a watershed because it occurred in a northern city and because it provoked violence. At the time, some experts considered it the most important school desegregation case since federal troops were called to Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
Garrity “had an extraordinary intellect, the ability to penetrate facts . . . and listen very intently to everyone,” said Robert Dentler, a sociologist who was dean of education at Boston University when the judge appointed him a court expert in the case.
“He took his time to deliberate, and he struggled always to get it right. Then he stood his ground,” Dentler said. “He was courageous and stalwart to a fault. He was the finest human being I ever worked with.”
Garrity never regretted making the desegregation decision, but years later he did express some regrets about the turmoil that ensued, especially from his decision to pair predominantly white South Boston High School with predominantly black Roxbury High School in the busing plan.
“I have regrets in the sense that people were injured. Students were harassed. They were put in a situation where they learned the worst about young people different from their own crowd,” he told the Boston Globe in 1994.
Garrity himself was threatened after issuing the landmark order. He was accompanied by armed guards when he went to court and was protected by federal marshals and the FBI at home.
The judge landed the case, filed in federal court in 1972, after drawing it in a lottery. It became “the most demanding case I ever drew,” he said.
Over the next decade, he issued more than 400 orders, directing the assignment of pupils, the hiring of staff and administrators, and the closure or overhaul of inferior schools. He took control over minute details of school operations, including the purchase of basketballs and other athletic equipment.
The stringency of his supervision provided other school districts with incentives to comply rather than resist court orders to desegregate. Judges in other major desegregation cases around the country used the Boston ruling as a model.
In 1974, Garrity took control of the public schools from the elected Boston School Committee, charging that the officials had deliberately kept blacks in substandard schools.
About 65% of Boston’s then 89,000-student enrollment was white; fewer than 5% of the administrators and teachers were black.
Garrity’s desegregation order came at a time of heightened racial tension in the city. When desegregated schools opened in September 1974, buses carrying black children into white neighborhoods were pelted with rocks. Racial epithets were hurled, and white parents kept their children out of school in droves.
In the white South Boston neighborhood, a mob pulled a black man from his car and beat him savagely. Troopers patrolled the hallways of South Boston High.
Even a quarter-century later, vestiges of racial bitterness turned up in hateful letters and e-mails to the judge from foes of the ruling.
“They send me unordered magazine subscriptions and announcements for real estate opportunities in Arizona and such,” he said in a recent interview.
In 1985, Garrity decided that desegregation had progressed enough for him to turn control back to the School Committee. Boston, which opened its first public school in 1635, had just gotten its first black superintendent, Laval S. Wilson.
Garrity retained jurisdiction in some areas, such as faculty desegregation and student assignments.
In 1987, a federal appeals court ruled that Boston’s schools were as desegregated as possible, given the racial makeup of the student population, and returned control of student assignments to the School Committee.
Garrity later approved a plan called “controlled choice,” which divided the city into three zones and gave parents the ability to choose a school within their zone as long as it did not upset racial balance.
In 1990, when he issued the final judgment that formally closed the 16-year-old busing case, Garrity said that fully desegregating the faculty and staff “will be an important milestone on the long road to affording equal educational opportunity” to all students in Boston’s public schools. He ordered the School Committee to enroll students in a pattern that reflected the ethnic makeup of each of the city’s regions and ordered schools to integrate their faculties and administrations, setting a goal of at least 25% black and 10% other minorities.
Today, white students make up only 16% of public school enrollment in the city.
Racial composition has changed so dramatically that in the mid-1980s, South Boston High had a Cambodian American prom queen.
This July, the school board voted to end busing because the vast majority of the city’s public school pupils are now minorities. The decision was motivated in part by a parents lawsuit alleging discrimination against white students.
“Judge Garrity represented the very best in the judiciary,” Chief Judge William G. Young said this week. His “33 years of service to America are a shining example of matchless fidelity to the law and gracious sensitivity to everyone with whom he dealt.”
Garrity began his law career as a clerk to U.S. District Judge Francis J.W. Ford in 1946 and 1947. He went on to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1948 to 1950.
After practicing law in a private firm for 11 years, he returned to the federal prosecutor’s office in Massachusetts in 1961, this time as U.S. attorney. His five-year tenure in that office was followed by his 1966 appointment to the federal bench.
Associated Press contributed to this story.