People’s History Podcast is an audio series about struggles in the United States, produced in collaboration with Jacobin and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Each six-episode season covers one local story, told from the viewpoint of working-class people. Our first season, The Point, traces a social history of Boston from the urban rebellions of the 1960s, through busing in the 70s, into the Clinton era. People’s History Podcast was created with listening in mind, so we encourage everyone who is able to listen to the audio either below or via Jacobin Radio. Transcript is available below.
The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing
Episode Two: “Grove Hall”
Alejandro Ramirez and Conor Gillies
[Music: chorus singing “Freedom” at a Boston Freedom School]
Alejandro Ramirez: In the summer of 1963, a group of African-American parents packed a courtroom building in downtown Boston. It was a major School Committee hearing, and the parents were there to disrupt it, to present the all-white administration with a list of demands. The demands included things like an end to discrimination in hiring teachers, an investigation into why Boston had no black principals, and a review of racist intelligence testing. Above all, they demanded that the committee make a public statement.
Tom Atkins, NAACP chair in Boston, summer 1963: An immediate, public acknowledgement of the existence of de facto segregation in the Boston school system. The school committee feels this it cannot do.
Archive interviewer: What kind of segregation is there?
Atkins: The segregation is segregation that is the result primarily of housing patterns. And this we recognize. We have said to the school committee, “Segregation exists.” The fact that it is a result of housing patterns is another problem. The fact that it exists is the School Committee’s problem.
The committee ignored the protestors, so the parents decided to pull their kids — 6,000 of them — out of Boston schools. They put them instead into churches, which had been converted temporarily into radical workshops, called “Freedom Schools.”
[music from Freedom Schools: “Jamaica Plain wants freedom!”]
Student vox: “First of all, in our group, we discussed the segregation of schools and what exactly was wrong with them.” “Then we discussed what we could do. We said it would take a long time. It all goes back to housing.”
A new freedom struggle, which had been brewing for ages in the South, had finally found its way to Boston.
[Fade out, singing: “All of Boston wants freedom! Freedom, freedom.”]
[Theme music: “Bella Ciao” by Marisa Anderson]
Tenant 1: See what types of resources we have in Columbia Point. None! We have none, and that’s what we’re asking for.
Tenant 2: 5,000 people. With nothing to take care of them, y’know. Nothing.
From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.
Tenant 3: People from the inside experienced Love, Tenacity, Willpower.
You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing.
Tenant 5: The Point was not valued like it is today, in terms of being a piece of property.
Tenant 6: They’re like we want this property, we want people gone.
Tenant 7: Splitting families, c’mon now! That’s wrong!
Tenant 8: This is real intimidation. This is honest to goodness… this is life or death, here.
Tenant 9: The police invaded Columbia Point, so the men picked up their arms.
I’m Alejandro Ramirez, with my co-producer Conor Gillies. And this is Episode Two, “Grove Hall.”
Alejandro: In 1963, tenants at the Columbia Point project were fresh off a victory—getting the city dump down the street closed, after a garbage truck killed a girl.
Maud Hurd: Oh, I have to go away back in my memory bank there but yes my babies were small when the mothers was protesting to close the city dump.
The area had been used as a dumping ground for Urban Renewal projects downtown.
Maud: And I remember having one of my babies or two of my babies in a stroller. And we used to block the street that the trucks would go down to dump a load of garbage. That was what we did, we just blocked every morning every day we got out there and blocked the street to keep those trucks from going down there. A lot of mothers had their baby strollers out there. But I was one of the ones with the baby stroller. Yeah.
Conor: And it worked!
Hurd: It worked. It did work. That was my first protest, was with the closing of the dump stuff. And then I became more involved in what was going on in the Columbia Point area because now I have decided, I’m gonna be here. So I might as well try to do whatever I can to make it better for my kids and myself and other family members as well.
Miriam Manning: When we closed the dump, it was just a community thing. Everybody got out to, you know, walk back and forth. People got made sandwiches, brought out food for you to eat if you were out there for a long time.
Miriam Manning was another leader at the project.
Manning: I was part of that family. And there was a group of us who just kinda stood together. Our kids stood together. Up until today.
Parents at the project, empowered and motivated by the protest, were able to successfully negotiate for better public resources, like a community center and a new middle school.
Manning: I worked at the community center. I was the family advocate and I went around when people moved in to talk to them about what was going on and point what they could do how they could get involved. Trying to get the school, the McCormack School, built. We got that built. So, you know, we decided. The mothers worked as a group. Not just one or two people. It was a community thing.
Then there was Dorothy Haskins. In the early 60s, she started an ad hoc organization of mothers to agitate around the issue of welfare. The Columbia Point group eventually linked up with a city-wide group called Mothers for Adequate Welfare, in 1965. And then with the National Welfare Rights Organization, in 1966.
Haskins: We did a lot of things ‘cause we didn’t have to, you know, go to nobody in Columbia Point for the things we were doing. We were independent. And the name of the organization was Welfare Rights. We were an organization. Welfare Rights was was an organization to bring the information to the community, to the residents who were on welfare. And we were a nation-wide organization. I would call a general meeting for Columbia Point. And they knew– I didn’t have to specify welfare, people who were on welfare. They knew what welfare rights stood for: for the rights of the people.
It all started when a few mothers got together outside of the nearest supermarket.
Donna Haskins: They used to sit at the supermarket with their table and used to have these buttons on welfare rights. And they will have an enrollment. There was every Saturday. You know that’s how that organization really started out to the point in it really really great. At Stop & Shop. I don’t know if you know, but there was a mall there.
This is Donna, Dorothy’s daughter. She says her mom’s greatest inspiration was Martin Luther King.
Donna: I grew up in the 60s. I grew up in the era of Martin Luther King. I was still in the era of racism. I was still in the era of segregation. It was like, get on a bus, sit on the back of the bus. That’s the era that I grew up in. That’s the era my mother was coming out in the midst of all that. And her motivation was Martin Luther King.
Dorothy: Yes ma’am.
Donna: Martin Luther King was her motivation, when she first heard him speak.
Dorothy: Martin Luther King and my daddy.
Donna: And peaceful demonstrations and stuff.
Tenants elsewhere in the city looked to the Columbia Point mothers, and started getting organized, too. Especially in projects where people of color lived.
Donna: Okay, like Cathedral, Orchard Park, or Mission Hill. They all started to come to them to see how they can group their community for themselves. And they all got it from my mom. And other people that were there. And growing up in a household with her it was like, every night there was a meeting. And if something was going on? They’re like, “Well, we’re having an emergency meeting.” That civil right era is in her system, even today.
With a new cadre of African-American women leaders, and a new rallying point around welfare, the informal tenant group known as “Mothers for Columbia Point” transformed and entered a new stage of organizing.
Maud Hurd: I think we were just angry parents and was out to try to do something for whatever the cause was. I don’t think we call ourselves a union or anything like that.
Conor: “Mothers for Columbia Point,” though, we’ve heard that.
Hurd: That’s it. That’s what we were called: the Mothers from Columbia Point.
The group’s new leaders, including Maud, Miriam, and Dorothy became the project’s fiercest advocates for resources and rights.
Dorothy: Mary Clark was another person too.
Manning: You got Thelma Peters, Erline Shearer, Ruth Morrison, Amy Farrell, you know it was quite a few.
Above all, they instilled a belief in the project that anything was possible through self-organization.
Manning: The mothers actually stood together. I mean if one had a problem, we all had the problem. So we all tried to help each other. All the mothers had a part of what was going on at Columbia Point.
Burgeoning movements around urban renewal and school desegregation were growing to include a movement around welfare.
Conor Gillies: In Boston and across Northern Cities, something was brewing. A sense that non-violent tactics alone could not address issues of the city like poor housing, police brutality, and poverty. In 1963, according to government estimates, one-fifth of the white population was below the poverty line, whereas half of the black population was below that same line. In cities like Boston and New York, black people were usually confined into low-quality housing, forced to pay high rents for overcrowded tenements.
In the neighborhood of Harlem, for example, where artists like Langston Hughes and leaders like Queen Mother Moore lived, tenants used direct action tactics to protest these poor living conditions. And this is where the urban rebellions really kick off. Here’s the historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: In 1964, this community organizer Jesse Gray led an entire campaign around a rat is a part of living conditions for black people in Harlem and part of that campaign included collecting dead rats and sending them to Nelson Rockefeller as a form of protest and showing up to housing court with plastic bags filled with rats that they drop on the table in front of the judge to say this is why people aren’t paying their rent.
Malcolm X on Jesse Gray, 1964: I want to thank Brother Jesse, Jesse Gray. Jesse Gray is one of the key persons in the Harlem area primarily because he’s dealing with a key problem, the problem of housing.
Jesse Gray was a close associate of Malcolm X. Across 1963 and ’64, with a group known as the Harlem Tenants Council, Gray led a series of rent strikes to protest, quote, “sub-human” conditions in the black community. Hundreds of tenants across New York banded together, from the Lower East Side to Bed-Stuy.
Malcolm X: Here in Harlem, the reason we say that housing is such a key problem: When you live in a poor neighborhood, you are living in an area where you have to have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. When you get a poor education, you’re destined to be a poor man and a poor woman, the rest of your life. A poor education and you can only work in a poor-paying job. And that poor-paying job enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. So, it’s a very vicious cycle.
And usually these bad housing conditions result from the fact of, as Mr. Gray has pointed out, of absentee landlords: People who are rich and live downtown, and let you and I live up here in the shack. Actually, it’s a form of 20th-century slavery.
Then in July 1964, when a 15-year-old boy was shot by police, the unrest in Harlem turned into an uprising. 4,000 people took to the streets.
Cappy Pinderhughes: But this was a feature of the mass of African Americans feeling that their demands were not being met by the civil rights movement’s meager advances.
[music: Nina Simone “Mississippi Goddam” lyrics “Well that’s just the trouble. Too slow…”]
Cappy: That was the trigger for most of these rebellions was some kind of police malfeasance, or doing stuff they might have been doing all along. But it was like, during that time, those actions became: This is the last straw, we’re going to war. We’re going to have a revolt. Not a riot, but a rebellion.
This is Charles Pinderhughes. He’s a professor of sociology at Essex County College in New Jersey, where he teaches a course on Marxism and the Black Panthers. He was a Panther himself and back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he helped run a radical bookstore in Roxbury and spent time with friends at Columbia Point. Among Point residents, he’s known as “Cappy.”
Cappy: And so long before Black Power is declared, the anger of the black community became more and more palpable. So that by ‘65 you have Watts, but you have dozens of other little things going on.
In fact, in precisely the years of major Civil Rights legislation, people took to the streets Cleveland, Rochester, Chicago and Philadelphia, Jersey City. In August of 1965, the neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles erupted in the most violent uprising since WWII. The event was provoked by the arrest of a black driver and the seizure of a young black woman falsely accused of spitting on police.
TV archive, Watts resident: The negroes are stepping up, they’re waking up, and they’re going to something about what the white man did to them, in the past.
There was rioting in the streets, looting, and firebombing of stores.
Watts resident: We rioted because the white man was doing the negroes unfair, taking what the negroes had. All they had, just about.
Interviewer: You’re not afraid of bloodshed, then?
Archive: I’m not afraid of bloodshed. If I had to die for my rights, I will.
[music: Max Roach “Drums Unlimited”]
Robert and Mabel Williams, the militants from North Carolina, were now in exile in Havana, Cuba. They started a radio show “Radio Free Dixie.” During the turmoil in Watts, they took to the airwaves to support the rebels.
Radio Free Dixie clip: The revolutionary people of Cuba sympathize with all people who struggle for social justice. It is in this spirit that we proudly allocate the following hour in an act of solidarity, peace, and friendship with our oppressed North American brothers.
Here’s the writer Niela Orr. She covered the “Radio Free Dixie” story in a podcast for The Organist.
Niela Orr: American listeners heard a mix of radical black politics and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Lead Belly, Abbie Lincoln and Max Roach. And a young singer named Louis X, now better known as the Nation of Islam’s minister Louis Farrakhan.
[music: Abbie Lincoln and Max Roach “Freedom Day”]
Williams on Radio Free Dixie: My brothers and sisters, we must face the hard, cold hard facts of life. Tokenism is a deceptive evil, perpetrated against our brutally oppressed people to lull us to sleep.
Orr: Williams’s commentaries between songs were calls to action.
Williams on Radio Free Dixie: Unite, organize, and arm for self defense. Only a fool will turn the other cheek to racist beasts who set out to exterminate our brutally oppressed people. Human dignity requires us to fight back. In the spirit of ’76, in the spirit of Watts, in the calls of justice and freedom, let our people take to the streets in fierce numbers and meet violence with violence. Let our battle cry be heard around the world: “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom Now, or Death!”
Like in Harlem, the uprising in Watts was fueled partly by dissatisfaction over living conditions. Nearly a third of all residents in Watts lived in public housing, which was being increasingly neglected.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor: Housing was a huge issue in Los Angeles and certainly one of the precipitating factors. The year before, white voters in California had repealed through referendum a state-wide “fair housing” law that had been voted into existence. The noose around black neighborhoods and communities draws tighter. And it essentially institutionalized what some called a “dual housing market,” a market where there are boundless choices, housing choices, for white people and there are very limited and expensive choices for black people.
By the time the rebellion was quelled, 34 people, mostly black, were killed. Hundreds more were injured, and 4,000 people were arrested. The event was followed by revolts in Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit.
Keeanga: I mean I think that that was one of the lessons of the civil rights movement was that if you do all of the things that you are supposed to do: legally petitioning the government, actually changing the law, and nothing substantively actually changes in your life, then it raises questions about the legitimacy of the system. That all of the voting in the world, all of the marching, and petitioning in the world, didn’t actually transform the material conditions in people’s lives. And for many people it left the impression that really the only way to transform this situation is through revolting against the existing institutions.
Stokely Carmichael, “Black Power” speech: We were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy.
“Black Power” became the new slogan among African-American youth. It was popularized in 1966 by Stokely Carmichael of SNCC.
Stokely: They’ve been telling you that the kids in Nashville started a riot? Number one, you ought to recognize it is not a riot. It is a rebellion. A rebellion. [applause] And number two, you ought to be proud of your black brothers and sisters of it, because a honkey cop touched one of ‘em, and they told him “You gotta touch all of us!”
[music: John Coltrane, “Olé”]
The government responded to growing pressure from the streets in a number of ways. The Johnson Administration started a new agency called HUD, the department of Housing and Urban Development, which provided housing subsidies. This was part of what Johnson called the “War on Poverty” — which introduced Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Alejandro: In Massachusetts, the state government passed a bill requiring the complete integration of the Boston Public Schools. New welfare offices opened across several neighborhoods, including Columbia Point, which got an office on site in 1963. In 1966, an agency called ABCD, founded by the Ford Foundation, directed funding from the Office of the Economic Opportunity into new social services and community spaces.
Haskins: ABCD was out there. They gave me space. They gave me office space.
Additionally, Columbia Point was chosen as the site for one of the first community health centers in the U.S.
Archive, John Collins, Mayor, 1965: The first Health Action program in America should begin at Columbia Point.
Hurd: It was just a very relieved feeling to know there was going to be a health center out there that people could go to and they could take their children to and they didn’t have to worry about when their children got sick how they were going to get them to a hospital or to a doctor.
The center, which was also funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity, gave health care on-site, often for free — through the new insurance program Medicaid.
Dorothy Haskins: There was a board. And the board was from the point residents.
One of the leaders on the board of the health center was Mrs. Haskins. Murielle Rue was another member.
Murielle Rue: Of course it was wonderful because now because we didn’t have to call the police every time we had take a child to the hospital. We had everything, a laboratory and a pharmacy. We had everything it was just a complete health center. Obstetrics and pediatrics. Optometry, dentists. We had everything there.
Through public housing coalitions, mothers set up health centers in other projects, too.
Haskins: Money came through and we were able to reach over to Mary Ellen McCormack in South Boston. They started using the health center. And then we opened up a sub health center for them over there. But they would still come over for certain things they didn’t have there. We had it in Columbia Point.
The health center was maybe the community’s biggest win yet. And, again, it inspired residents to agitate for more resources.
Maud Hurd: People thinking, “Okay now we got this health center. Maybe the other things we could get here in in point. What else can we see if we can get in a point?” And then we got the youth center. And that was a place that the kids could go and have fun and play and wouldn’t have to play in the streets which wouldn’t matter anyway because there’s nothing in the streets. And so it was a relief. We got a store out there. People didn’t have to travel a long ways to get bread and milk.
Conor: But recent victories — like better social services, or legal equality — did not transform the fundamental plight of most tenants living in Boston. People in the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester still lived in rat-infested neighborhoods. Women in the projects still dealt with bureaucracy of the welfare office, where guards and personnel often harassed the young mothers. Boston’s long history of police brutality was becoming intolerable.
[music: Jackie Washington, “Lincoln came and set em free, but we still don’t have liberty…Still, we don’t have liberty…]
Jackie Washington was an Afro-Puerto Rican folk artist from Roxbury. In 1963, he was a 24-year-old college senior who sang protest songs in local venues like Club 47.
Then one night, out of the blue, cops pulled Jackie over and arrested him for quote “being abroad in the night-time.” The police proceeded to break his nose, and twist his ankle.
[music: Jackie Washington, “Malaguena Salerosa”]
The beating of Jackie Washington by cops became an important spark, provoking a storm of protest. There were large demonstrations. 10,000 people met on the Boston Common to decry police violence and also express solidarity with struggles in the South.
That same year, people marched against school segregation. Thousands took to the streets in Roxbury outside a dilapidated school building.
Actuality: You see the school here, build in 1890, and then you see the Prudential Center rising above that in the back. This is what we are talking about. We are talking about the difference, we’re talking about the old and new Boston.
Alejandro: The Prudential Tower was a new insurance building that loomed over the South End. In many ways the embodiment of government-sponsored Urban Renewal.
Prudential opening newsreel: Plans for redevelopment are widespread…spectacular plans for the new Prudential Center, and along with these, new hospitals, schools, apartments, and homes.
Conor: Urban renewal was back with a vengeance — led by a new, ambitious city planner named Ed Logue, who now ran the redevelopment authority. Most destructive of all was his plan to push out people of color in areas south of the Prudential building. The aim, according to an official report from the redevelopment authority, was to replace people with quote “middle-income white families.” The South End, Roxbury, North Dorchester, and Columbia Point were all targeted. In fact, Ed Logue toured the Columbia Point project in 1964, as more people of color were moving in. His conclusion? Quote, “It should have never been built.”
James Baldwin: Most northern cities are now engaged in something called urban renewal. Which means moving the negroes out—it means negro removal. That is what it means. And the federal government is an accomplice to this fact.
The police operated as foot soldiers for this new wave of urban renewal — they didn’t hesitate to drag families out of their homes, evicting them by force. City hall formed a new riot squad, the Tactical Police Force, which acted as the armed wing of the gentrifying class. One liberal white family in the South End pressured a TPF captain to stop what they saw as a “reign of terror” of purse-snatching and prostitution.
Purdue: It was the police in conjunction with the other city services that enforced urban renewal. And what’s really interesting you see in this period in Roxbury the entire neighborhood was just left behind and that’s a feeling many people had, a feeling of abandonment. In terms of the policing of the neighborhood in terms of the sort of stuff like trash collection, services like electricity, it was very evident that it was all being sort of shut down almost in preparation for another urban renewal project.
Simon Purdue is a researcher at Northeastern University with a particular focus on urban rebellion in Roxbury. He says residents in neighborhoods targeted for urban renewal felt that the police had abandoned them. When police did come in, they used violence.
Purdue: Their presence on the streets felt more like an occupation to many people. With the segregation of neighborhoods, there was a very different approach in policing. Sort of more affluent white neighborhoods were policed in a much more friendly manner. Whereas, as I said, in neighborhoods like Roxbury, the police presence felt more like a military occupation.
This was happening in cities all over. While President Johnson had begun making concessions through his War on Poverty, at the same time the Democratic president had started another war — the “War on Crime.” This punitive turn began in earnest in 1965, partly in response to Watts. Johnson funded new police, prisons, military-grade weapons, and riot squads like the TPF.
Purdue: Police suddenly were carrying large automatic weapons, they were driving armored vehicles. It was an atmosphere of war.
Cops targeted black youth specifically through new policies of quote “law and order.”
Purdue: They were there, effectively, to keep people in line.
Alejandro: In the face of this, women across town, including the leaders at Columbia Point, began organizing more fiercely for better social services and treatment. Poor black mothers, a growing demographic in public housing because of urban renewal, joined up in a militant group called MAW: Mothers for Adequate Welfare.
Purdue: At one point I think their membership reached about 400 people. They were mothers from these sort of poorer communities who were relying on welfare to get by. Unfortunately the welfare system was designed in such a way that it was meant to be uncomfortable for them and it was an incredibly demeaning experience to collect welfare for many of these mothers, they found armed guards at the welfare offices they had a very, very long bureaucratic process to get any money from the state. And particularly when it came to proving their eligibility. Mothers often found that they had very invasive sort of searches going on in their houses. Claims of illegitimacy, which was a big issue as well. And just in general it was a system that demeaned people. It was a system that people were very unhappy with. And also the money people were getting on welfare wasn’t enough to get by. You couldn’t live on the money that they were making through the welfare system. So Mothers for Adequate for Welfare were set up in order to make the system more dignified, to give dignity for welfare recipients and to make it more effective.
At Columbia Point, organizers in MAW were also some of the strongest community leaders.
Dorothy Haskins: Try me. Because you couldn’t crack me. I’m Maim Roger’s daughter.
Donna: Did they tell you they used to call my mother Sergeant Haskins? Did they tell you that?
Dorothy Haskins and her sister, Amie Farrow, were constantly keeping peace out on Columbia Point. Here’s Dorothy’s daughter Donna again:
Donna: They called my mother Seargeant Haskins and my aunt Officer Farrow. Any time someone did something out there they will contact my mother.
Emulating recent protests around urban renewal, the mothers used direct action tactics to get the attention of city officials.
Purdue: They begin very visible protest particularly lock ins and this is really what will lead up to events at Grove Hall is that following in the footsteps of many of the other groups and urban renewal protestors who generally lock themselves in in order to prevent buildings from being knocked down, etc., they would lock themselves in welfare offices, basically occupying them making themselves very visible, making a lot of noise deliberately in order to bring attention to their movement. So that’s what’s happening in the lead up to 1967.
There were sit ins across the city, including at the welfare office at Columbia Point. They would use other creative tactics, like pile trash on the steps of the welfare office.
Maud Hurd: My husband was on a he had gotten sick and so he had a brain tumor. So he got on welfare. I believe we would we was protesting for furniture from the Welfare Department, clothing alliances and I believe that’s what we were protesting for. I was part of the protests. I was we used to go and sit in the welfare office and yeah I was part of that protest and at the welfare office. And we did get that. We began to get furniture. We got better clothing alliances so we could buy more clothing for our kids. And so, I remember that, yeah.
In 1965, MAW staged a sit-in at a Welfare Department to demand that surplus food was handed out quicker. That was successful. In 1966, they marched on the state house to demand a better welfare system.
Purdue: So through ’65, ’66, ’67 we see them becoming increasingly active. They are really starting to gear up their protests, become very visible. Mothers for Adequate Welfare start making headlines in the Boston Globe and other mainstream press. At this point they are led by a Roxbury resident called Doris Bland. She is a mother, she is African American, she is from the community fighting for the community. She is becoming very active, very visible, and really driving Mothers for Adequate Welfare forward in the general direction that the Civil Rights Movement is taking at this time. It’s a very active movement. It’s all about direct action.
Manning: Like anything else, if you need something and you can’t get no help, you have to fight for it, in a way of speaking, I don’t mean fist fight. Get out and talk with people and ask them to help you. And we had mothers in the Point that were really good at that, that really did a lot of work on welfare rights, that helped a lot of people.
At Columbia Point, welfare mothers were fighting for better daycare.
Dorothy Haskins: Welfare wanted them to get off of welfare but they weren’t coming up with no money for daycare for the mother’s children. So when I got out there I worked on that. We demonstrated. We marched to the Welfare Department and took that over. The welfare department. We marched over to Grove Hall and Hancock Street—those were the two offices that covered Columbia Point— and demand money for the mothers’ daycare, to pay people to watch the children. So we got that too.
But fundamental complaints were going unaddressed. Checks were often cut off without any warning leaving families without vital resources and an unclear process to restore their benefits. Mothers accused social workers in welfare offices of making racist comments and treating women with disrespect.
Protestors directed their frustrations at the Mayor and other elected officials who displayed complete indifference to the issues going on in cities.
Protestor on WGBH: It wasn’t that he didn’t just want to come to Roxbury, he just refused to talk with us because he’s not going to do his job. The issue is out here and this is where he is supposed to come, where the issue is. That is his job, that is what he he getting paid for, and he refuses to do his job.
Purdue: Then in June 1967 we see and really step up the game even further. They decided that the peaceful sit ins that they’re kind of working with aren’t working quite as well as they would hope. So they decided to stage a weekend lock-in in early June 1967.
A group of mothers returned to Grove Hall, this time to begin an overnight sit-in that they said wouldn’t end till the Welfare Director Daniel Cronin spoke to them. They entered the welfare office calmly and confidently.
Purdue: So we see them at this point the group whole welfare office using bike chains on Friday evening as the welfare office is kind of getting ready to close up. They lock themselves in with bike chains. About 50 mothers and children. And they’re there for the weekend. So that’s what really draws a crowd, who start to grow outside. We see a crowd of about 700 people beginning to emerge on the Blue Hills Avenue where the Grove Hall welfare office is.
Basically there were 100s of people kind of gathering outside as this protest was happening. The welfare commissioner Daniel Cronin turns up and basically asks to talk with the Mothers for Adequate Welfare and they wouldn’t let them into the building for fear that the police would come in with him.
When the mothers, calling from the window, demanded he speak with them from outside the building, in front of the growing public audience. He said “no.”
Purdue: He refuses, and basically orders the police to break down the doors to the welfare office smash the way through and break up the protest. So the police do that they get bolt cutters. And they they cut the bicycle chains that are holding the doors closed and they move in.
The deputy police commissioner Joseph Siah authorized force, saying:
Purdue: “Get them, beat them, use clubs if you have fear I don’t care just get them out of here.” Those words are not something you’d expect to hear about you know a group of mothers and children. Some of these protesters were pregnant. He is advocating the use of incredible force for a peaceful protest.
Conor: Some protestors shared their story on the local news.
Protestor on WGBH: The police started the riot and ended the riot. When they started beating on the women and children. And then the men started coming through the windows to protect the women and children and they started beating on the men.
Alejandro: From one of the office windows, a woman screamed that police were beating people with night sticks. Demonstrators, including women, were dragged out.
Chuck Turner: The police had their billy clubs out and would be just hitting us.
Conor: This is Chuck Turner, who organized a lot with Mel King in the South End. He was there, at the welfare office.
Chuck Turner: It was chaotic a lot of movement on different floors: I was on the first floor, there were others who were on upper floors where the staff of the organization were. And then the police just busting in.
Alejandro: By the morning, 1,600 police officers, including the TPF, armed with riot gear, arrived in Roxbury to retaliate against residents and demonstrators.
Protestor on WGBH: I was arrested, I was beaten, no one was being held hostage. We asked them to stop and talk to us, to try and persuade Cronin to listen to our demands. Not only were we completely ignored, we couldn’t get an interview with Cronin, he refused to listen to the women, the MAW. It could have been peaceful if the demands could have been met. There wouldn’t have been any problems. But we were ignored and then attacked and. Just trying to get things which people deserve the human rights and their dignity. I don’t think we’re asking for anything that could not be granted but they just refuse to give it to us. I think that the problem with it. We ask and ask and ask and we’re not given anything. And the only time the man seems to do doing things when he feels threatened no one he feels that people are going to get out of hand and not going to obey his law and order.
Purdue: You had accounts from community members who were talking about seeing police officers lining the roofs of the buildings along Blue Hill Ave with Carbine rifles. We have accounts of police officer firing up to 200 rounds over the heads of protesters. And really what comes through as we look at all these accounts is generally just a feeling that this is a war zone.
You know you you’re seeing U.S. essentially what is an imperial project in Vietnam and you’re seeing an imperial project at home as well in the streets of places like Roxbury or Watts or Newark. They were talking about the environment on the streets of Boston as if it were you know Vietnam or it where in the words of one bystander Egypt or Israel are the examples he used. I think this was no coincidence at all and it was a very definite sort of continuity there. The militarization of the police was just one part of the increasingly divided society and increasing, I use the term internal imperialism. That’s definitely what is happening here.
Protestor on WGBH: I don’t call it a riot. That was a rebellion against intolerable conditions. Black people are not treated like human beings that’s the worst and first of all. Second place that even white people the poor people are not treated like human beings. This country is an oligarchy. It is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship of a few, the few rich and powerful over the many who are either poor or middle class, and don’t know any better.
Police arrested 44 people in total, and 45 were injured. Rioting and looting continued for the next two nights, over 15 blocks of Blue Hill Avenue.
WGBH: The brick throwing and looting in the Grove Hall section of Roxbury are over. The thud of police nightsticks is no longer heard along Blue Hill Avenue which runs through Boston’s negro ghetto.
The TV station WGBH reported on the aftermath.
MAW member: Policeman is bringing all kinds of charges: inciting a riot, participating in a riot, affray, disturbing the peace. All these kind of charges. What kind of peace did we disturb? They came in and started beating on us. Yet we was disturbing the peace. We were never told to leave the building. We were never told to get out the building.
Protestor: And these are just trumped up charges. The Boston police force is rotten to the core. The whole system, power structure. In the end they want to put it on somebody. Okay like they beat us up. Don’t you think this was great. Mayor Collins, Commissioner McNamara and all them praised the police for beating up women and children. You did a wonderful job. That’s nice. Praising them.
Conor: The Reverend Virgil Wood was also at the Grove Hall rebellion — he was a leader of the Blue Hill Christian Center in Roxbury. He was also a lieutenant and confidante of Martin Luther King.
Virgil Wood: I’d say it was a police riot, and a people’s rebellion.
It was precipitated by the assault of the police. Now the community has moved from simply reacting to what the police did now to bringing on what I think is a much needed revolution in terms of making their community the domain of their own decision making so that they will own earn learn and control this entire turf.
The rebellion is the movement of the people to get the man off our necks and off our backs. And that’s in terms of economics that’s in terms of decision making. In other words to get the control over the decision making and to get in the driver’s seat of our own community.
I think we’ve got to get these cops out of every black community in America. Our community gets no protection whatever anyway so the question of how you protect communities is not going to be resolved by the present system of of that now obtains in cities. Every weekend there are people who are beaten and kicked around and knocked around. And on the other hand when people call to have protection they just don’t get the response. So then I have to say that the police force not only is a failure but that it is an oppressive force in the community. We’re sitting on a powder keg anyway. It’s a plantation system where other people manipulate people’s lives for profit.
Alejandro: The uprising in Boston shocked the government into action. In 1968, Massachusetts increased its monthly welfare distributions from $250,000 to $3 million. It was a major win.
Conor: And across the country, the urban rebellions showed no signs of letting up.
Purdue: 1967 and the actions at Grove Hall were the start of a long long season off of discontent, of action, that lasted right through the summer of the long hot summer of 1967 as it’s often.
Cappy: ‘67 you have two major ones and dozens and dozens of minor ones.
H. Rap Brown: We will be free by any means necessary!
Martin Luther King: I think we’ve got to see that a riot…
Cappy: And by ‘68…
MLK: …is the language of the unheard.
Cappy: When King was assassinated, 130 cities burned at the same time!
Black people again took to the streets: in Detroit, Washington D.C., and Boston.
Alejandro: Across the country, 39 people were killed, 35 of them black.
Kwame Ture: When white America killed Doctor King last night, she declared war on us. The rebellions that have been occurring around the cities of this country is just light stuff, compared to what is about to happen.
[Nina Simone, speaking between choruses: “The King of Love is dead. I ain’t ‘bout to be non-violent honey.” [Laughter, crowd cheering] “Ooooh no.”]
Cappy: And then, you got the Democratic Convention, with people being brutally beaten by cops right on live TV. With the crowd chanting, “The whole world is watching!”
Newsreel sound of chanting: “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
TV announcer: Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Panthers spoke.
Seale: We are here as revolutionaries, to let them know that we refuse to accept those political decisions that maintain the oppression of our black people.
Cappy: And so ‘68, with all of these things, 130 cities burned, chaos was in the air. People did not know what was going to happen next.
People’s history is produced by Alison Bruzek, Rehanna Fernandes Nuñez, Alejandro Ramirez, Conor Gillies, Rosie Gillies, and Qainat Khan.
Research and production help from Patrick King, Caitlin Rose, and Ed Paget. Fact-checking and editing from Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis.
Special thanks to Niela Orr and the The Organist for letting us reproducing a section of their podcast. Theme music by Marisa Anderson. Our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.
People’s history is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It is not associated with Howard Zinn’s book or related projects.
Special thanks to Kelly Haydon at the Tamiment library at NYU and to Jessica Holden at the Healey library at UMass Boston.