Spencer Grant: Boston Protests
April 12 2015
Protests have long been among the most effective means of showing the power of opinion. Despite the rise of armchair activism, protests, marches and sit-ins on both sides of the liberal/conservative divide remain commonplace to this day. But the golden age of the protest in America was the second-half of the twentieth century—a time of intensely divided public opinion and changing social structure. One photographer who is unfortunately little-known today, Boston-based Spencer Grant, built a stunning archive of the protests in his city during that period. A stock photographer by trade, his collected documentary work around Boston begins in 1969 and spans the tumultuous ’70s, conservative ’80s and concludes around 1992.
These photographs, mostly in black and white, depict citizens advocating for or protesting against both national and local causes. The national issues should be familiar with anyone acquainted with mid-to-late-20th century American history: the Kent State Massacre, equal rights for homosexuals and women, the Vietnam War and the brutal murder of Illinois Black Panther chapter leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police. As dark as some of those national causes were, the Boston-centric ones could be equally troubling.
Probably the era that mars Boston history the most is the forced desegregation of its public schools. Starting in the mid-70’s and ending in the late-80’s, the longstanding row is now better known as the Boston Busing Crisis. Boston, like many other rapidly growing urban areas at the time, was extremely segregated. There were clear areas that were predominately white—Italian-Americans in the North End, Irish-Americans in South Boston and Charlestown—and areas that were predominately black—Roxbury, the South End and Mattapan.
One year after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act, the first of its kind in the country. The act ordered districts to desegregate by busing students between schools or risk losing precious education dollars from the state. Working-class whites immediately opposed it. It took another eight years for a judge to rule that any school with more than 50% nonwhite students should be balanced.
As students from both black and white neighborhoods put on buses with police escorts, parents protested in droves and pulled their children from school under the glare of intense media coverage. Anti-desegregation leaders like Louise Day Hicks rose in popularity, and violence followed from both sides through the years until the desegregation plan was deemed “effective” in 1988. Boston public school enrollment never recovered as “white flight” took effect, as it did in many urban areas nationwide. White families moved to the suburbs, while minority/immigrant families filled Boston’s neighborhoods. In 2014, Boston public schools were only 13% white, while metropolitan suburb schools were 64% white.
Considering Grant’s photographs documenting the era, it’s easy to look in the faces of his subjects and draw parallels to the people flooding streets today for causes just as culturally significant. Whether or not you fall on the side of those on the other end of Grant’s lens, their passion and fury is a universal human condition we can all recognize.
All photographs c/o the Boston Public Library’s online collection.