People’s History Podcast episode transcript

Police surround swimmers during a 1977 “wade in” at Carson Beach—a stretch of coastline connecting Columbia Point (in the distance) and South Boston—during a protest against white segregationists. (Michael Peterson)

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.

Alejandro Ramirez: From Jacobin Magazine, this is People’s History.

You’re listening to our first six-episode season, called The Point: Rebellion and Resistance in Boston Public Housing.

This is Episode Five: Carson Beach.

In the history of Columbia Point, the month of September 1974 is arguably the most important turning point. We really want to really focus on what happened during that pivotal time, and after, when the policy of busing in schools first went into effect in Boston.

This is the beginning of the end, when Columbia Point is subjected to the ugliest forms of police violence, white racism, and extreme neglect. But before we get there, we thought we should take a pause and review where we’re at in the timeline in the years leading up to busing.

Conor Gillies: So, from 1970 to 1974, federal and state governments became more conservative, and city hall brought in new developers and new urban renewal projects both downtown and at Columbia Point. It’s also a period of law and order, with the Tactical Police Force and the new state police barracks out on Carson Beach. Police power was built up so rebellions could be put down, like the one in New Bedford. These years — ‘71, ‘72, and ‘73 — marked a dramatic reaction to the civil rights era and the beginning of what’s often called “mass incarceration.”

Alejandro: All this time, the military and the CIA had a blank check to fund wars and interventions abroad. The United States bombed Cambodia, toppled a socialist government in Bolivia, and installed a fascist government in Chile. All while extreme poverty, hunger, and unemployment grew in housing projects like Columbia Point.

Conor: Still, in Boston, progressive social movements held strong. In spring 1970, students and radicals marched in protest of war, after Nixon bombed Cambodia. The march turned into an uprising in the streets around Harvard Square, with the help of the Black Panthers.

Alejandro: After a summer of rebellion in New Bedford, discontent was still in the air. When police in Cambridge beat a seventeen-year-old boy to death in November, 1972, kids in and around a public housing project called Roosevelt Towers took to the streets.

Conor: The Panthers may have left Boston in 1972, but the Black United Front continued the work of the Free Health Center. The Front was also involved with labor organizing.

Obalajii Rust was an organizer in the United Front who worked with Columbia Point tenants.

He says, the front organized Black workers to protest infrequent garbage pick-up in Roxbury and they tried to break down racism in the trade unions by occupying building sites.

Arcenia Allen was another Front member. She was the Columbia Point neighborhood delegate.

Alejandro: A group of high school students formed the Black Student Union, and acted as a youth wing to the United Front. They protested poor schools, and organized a school boycott in 1971. They demanded the hiring of Black teachers and guidance counselors, and demanded an end to harassment of Black students. Leon Rock led the union.

Conor: In 1971 and 1973, some members of the Black Student Union worked on the campaign of Patricia Bonner-Lyons, a Communist and the only Black candidate running for a School Committee seat.

She may have lost, but she ran an impressive campaign on “community control of schools,” gaining most of the Roxbury vote.

Through all of this, struggle continued at the Point.

Bill Loesch ran a Christian Center at the Point, which he let the Panthers and other groups use as an organizing space. He was a civil rights activist and a longtime ally to Columbia Point tenants.

This was one the most energetic times of resistance, from 1970 to ‘74. You have lots of things going on, all at the same time.

You have the welfare movement, holding strong, defending gains made after Grove Hall.

You have some successful rent strikes and protests, with other public housing residents, over housing conditions. And the corrupt BHA.

And you have real rays of hope and liberation, maybe most notably with the Black Panther Party, who organized the community around a Free Breakfast program.

[music clip: “We’re a Winner” by Curtis Mayfield]

There were also urban renewal protests. In the early 70s, when the University of Massachusetts decided to build a campus next door to the project, at the site of the former dump, tenants said “no way.” The Redevelopment Authority’s plan was to convert the peninsula into a quote “campus by the sea.” A construction site was set up, and so Columbia Point residents scaled the fence and set up a human chain. They blocked dump trucks, a little bit like they did in 1963.

The trucks were carrying infill, dirt and rocks to extend the land out into the water. Construction slowed because of the protest, but the plan went forward. Tenants who had suspected a shady land grab were vindicated, when it was revealed that the developer’s consulting firm was being used to embezzle funds. Various state and local politicians dipped their hands in the pot, including, according to one of them, the Boston mayor, Kevin White. SDS radicals said the college was being a “pawn,” quote, “masking the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s plan to remove poor people from Columbia Point.”

Alejandro: As far as radical Black politics, the Panthers were gone — but in their place, a militant group of Black Vietnam veterans raised the banner of armed self-defense. The group was called de Mau Mau, and they continued political education and defense training in the project. They were organized to defend Columbia Point against police and a growing trend of white gang violence in the lead-up to busing.

Here’s Betty Ann Jones, she’s another one of the core Columbia Point mothers, and an ally of de Mau Mau.

This is another resident, Lavaughn Howell.

This is Jimmy Funches, who grew up at the Point.

Alejandro: We interviewed Jimmy at the home of his aunt, Betty Washington. Betty Washington is another major organizer in the history of Columbia Point. Some people call her “Big Betty.”

Alejandro: Here’s Michael Patrick MacDonald, the author who grew up in working-class Southie, in a project called Old Colony.

Conor: The De Mau Mau offered protection to Black residents who were facing increased threats from residents in South Boston, where a movement against busing had become a breeding ground for far-right reaction. Busing was the liberal establishment’s response to Black protest against segregation. The law was that, quote, “Any Boston school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% nonwhite was to be balanced according to race.” The plan was to mix Black and white students in neighboring districts by bus. As debate stirred around a court case and then a court order about school desegregation, the school committee, run by Louise Day Hicks, stirred anger among white mobs to oppose the policy. Like the Boston Housing Authority, the school system was a patronage system for whites.

There was also the factor of Whitey Bulger, the notoriously violent gang leader, sinking his hooks deeper into the underground economy of South Boston, subsidized by the FBI.

Along with this, a man named Jim Kelley organized through his right-wing South Boston Information Center.

The KKK began flyering. Bill Bulger, state senator and the brother of Whitey, supported the anti-busers. And it wasn’t just Boston. Richard Nixon had used a whole “southern strategy” to mobilize white voters across the country around euphemisms like “forced busing.”

Alejandro: According to the editorial board of the activist journal Radical America, the biggest factor in fueling racism was that the “white working class” of Southie did not want to lose their relative privilege over Black people, like those who lived across the bay at Columbia Point. As they wrote in an editorial, poor whites opposed integrated education as a way of defending their “material advantage,” however marginal that advantage was.

Reactionary racist violence broke out in 1973, when white tenants in the D Street Projects shot and killed a Black teenager, who was part of the only Black family at the project. Afterward, several of the Puerto Rican families in the project were driven out by segregationists. MacDonald saw neighbors using racist slogans and supporting the KKK. “I was confused about that one,” MacDonald writes in his book, All Souls. “I had always heard stories from Grandpa about a time when the Ku Klux Klan burned Irish Catholics out of their homes.”

Here’s professor Cappy Pinderhughes again.

Conor: As schools prepare to open their doors, the racist movement in Boston crystallizes. A Nazi party distributes literature and opens a headquarters in Southie. Louise Day Hicks and Pixie Paladino, a city councilor from Italian East Boston, bring together a new city-wide group opposed to busing called Restore Our Alienated Rights, ROAR. ROAR and the Information Center espoused an anti-Black, anti-integration line. They were supported by the Bulgers as well as Ray Flynn, an anti-abortion activist and state senator who, in 1976, led a men’s rights rally from his car, waving alongside confederate flags.

Massachusetts representative Ray Flynn leads a “men’s march” anti-busing parade down West Broadway in Boston on their way to South Boston High School on February 29, 1976. (Tom Landers/The Boston Globe)

The writer Robert L. Allen put it this way: In the 70s, he said “white businessmen and politicians” opposed any move toward desegregation “because genuine desegregation would undermine their ability to manipulate and exploit both the Black and white communities: the breakdown of racial divisions between the Black and white communities would more clearly expose the class conflict between Black and white workers on the one hand and the capitalists on the other.”

Instead, angry whites, under their own deteriorating roofs, scapegoated Black people and, in particular, Columbia Point.

The police were out in full force everywhere in the city where unrest was expected.

Police were especially violent against Columbia Point tenants.

On Friday, September 20th, 1974, two white men took a blue van spray-painted with “KKK” on the side and drove into the project. They were shouting that they were going to burn down Columbia Point and kill all the Black people. According to the Boston Globe, two young Puerto Ricans stopped the van, and hit the driver in the mouth with a pipe, successfully fending them off. But then other night-riders were back on Saturday. Tenants at Columbia Point saw shots being fired from speeding cars. A group of neighbors, including the de Mau Mau, stood their ground, and shot back.

Betty Ann Jones was quoted in the Boston Globe, “They have been coming into our community and harassing us while the police stand on the side; so I say we’re tired, we’re going to protect ourselves.”

On September 25th, the police led a full-scale occupation of Columbia Point. Here’s Leon Rock again.

This is archive sound of Bernie Sneed. He’s something of a mentor figure for a lot of Columbia Point residents, and was a community activist through the ‘70s and ‘80s. He watched these events unfold.

Here’s Betty Ann Jones.

According to the Globe, the police stationed snipers on the rooftops, searched and occupied apartments, and took over the streets. They carried shotguns, rifles, M-1s and M-16s. They put up a road barrier, where they stopped and searched cars.

Conor: According to a lieutenant in the police department, the cops took over the Community Center as a quote “command post.”

When they left, finally, it turned out they had trashed and vandalized the whole place, including the old Free Breakfast hall.

Alejandro: The policy of busing was an ingenious concession to ten years of protest. In 1963, protesters had brought the issue of racism in the school system to the fore with the Stay Outs for Freedom. Year after year, the school committee kicked the can down the road, doing nothing to address conditions of schools. As Howard Zinn described it, the Boston busing policy “had the effect of pushing poor whites and poor Blacks into competition for the miserable inadequate schools which the system provided for all the poor.” Over the fall and then the spring, poor white students were bused to schools in Roxbury and Dorchester. Poor Black students were bused to schools in South Boston. Working class whites who could afford it sent their kids sent to private Catholic schools. So housing and schools became more segregated.

Alejandro: Angie Irving remembers how, through the busing policy, the very idea of whiteness and the “white race” was being re-configured in real time.

Alejandro: When busing went into effect, the entire dynamic of the city changed.

Alejandro: Here’s Sheila Williams.

In the summer of 1975, the first summer since busing policy went into effect, residents of South Boston declared that Carson Beach was closed to Black people. Columbia Point’s neighborhood beach, Carson Beach — the beach where residents used to go clamming, where tenants used to learn how to swim — was suddenly off limits. Irish-Americans from South Boston, on the other side of the bay, claimed the swimming area was now for “whites only.”

In August, white Southie residents attacked two Black men on the beach. There were more racist incidents.

Steve Meacham took part in the protest on Carson Beach. He says, as far as radical organizing, the busing question revealed stark contradiction and fragmentation on the left. Some self-styled socialist groups like the Revolutionary Union actually took the side of white anti-busing protests. Other groups like Progressive Labor Party and the October League stood by on the beach, in solidarity with the Black residents at Columbia Point, and the De Mau Mau protecting them.

Meacham was in the October League, which was part of a broad alliance of anti-racist groups defending Columbia Point.

The crowd grew to about 6,000 people, mostly whites who were counter-protesting. The New York Times reported on the events. Conflict escalated between Black and white beachgoers, with taunts being hurled on both sides.

A clash broke out, and the Tactical Police Force pushed the Black demonstrators off the beach and back into Columbia Point, where they occupied the streets through the night. There were 40 injuries and 10 arrests. Over the next few years, Carson Beach would be a site of ongoing tension and struggle.

It was Jim Crow-style segregation and white mob rule rearing its head once again. Black people simply weren’t allowed to pass the police barracks guarding the beach, or they would face white violence.

Things heated up again in the summer of 1977, when Betty Washington saw a car hit a young girl, playing in a hydrant on the street. In fact, three Columbia Point children were hit by cars while trying to cool off in hydrants that same week. Residents had had enough with the extreme isolation. They wanted to swim on their old beach. Betty, along with other Columbia Point parents, this time leading the march themselves, decided to fight for Black families to use their local beach, despite the threat of violence.

Dorothy Haskins helped organize the wade-ins with Betty Washington.

In some ways, the wade-in protests marked the last significant tenant movement at Columbia Point. The project was still losing families and residents, including leaders like Dorothy Haskins, as conditions continued to deteriorate.

Columbia Point was isolated, empty, and lacking resources. and that made it a prime candidate for an ambitious redevelopment plan to privatize the project.

Starting at least as early as 1975, the BHA started to “mothball” buildings — that is, they left apartments vacant and boarded up entire buildings. They did this even as the waiting list for public housing grew longer.

By 1979, after over a decade of neglect and a deliberate policy of “mothballing” buildings, Columbia Point became mostly vacant. (Boston Globe)

Alejandro: That’s when Joe Corcoran came into the picture. Corcoran grew up in the Upham’s Corner neighborhood of Boston and became a real estate developer. He was also involved with the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a powerful real estate lobby. As a developer, he always had his eye on Columbia Point. At least since 1963, when Ed Logue’s BRA first highlighted the peninsula’s potential for development.

In 1967, Corcoran approached Kevin White with an idea to redevelop the Point, but the mayor shrugged off the plan. However, the 1970s saw big changes to the landscape of the peninsula, including the building of the JFK Presidential Library in 1977.

Now, with the BHA having totally abandoned the point, Joe Corcoran saw his opening. In 1978, he, Joe Mullins, and Gary Jennison — the core leaders of CMJ — met with leaders of the newly formed tenant task force, including Esther Santos, Ruby Jaundoo, and Terry Mair.

Collaborating with tenants was CMJ’s signature move. The conversion of King’s Lynn — a public housing project outside of Boston — to mixed-income housing relied on a fifty-fifty partnership with the tenants. Corcoran was sure the same model would work at the Point.

But CMJ needed approval from BHA and HUD to take on such a project. The BHA, at the time, was in crisis. In 1975, some public housing tenants sued the BHA over mismanagement. The judge overseeing the case gave the agency a few years to get their act together, but in 1980 — because no progress was made — the judge placed the BHA into court-ordered receivership. The receiver in charge of the BHA was Harry Spence, a housing official who had most recently worked in Cambridge’s housing department. Spence rejected Corcoran’s proposal, because he was a political liberal still adamant about keeping Columbia Point public. CMJ would have better luck with HUD.

In 1980, Reagan was elected president and with him came a shift towards “small government,” pro-market politics. CMJ was able to push the plan through by going over the BHA’s head and seeking support from Reagan’s friendly HUD administration. In fact, HUD said they would only release funds to Columbia Point if the project was privately redeveloped, not just rehabilitated.

So the plan moved forward. Harry Spence’s case for a public project was shot down and CMJ was brought in as the new manager of the property.

A year later, representatives from the task force signed a “Columbia Point Redevelopment Agreement” with BHA and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, setting out a plan to develop the Point into “mixed-income” housing. It was funded with $10 million from HUD. The plan was to guarantee all existing Columbia Point residents housing on the peninsula at a cost not to exceed 25 percent of their incomes.

Deliberate neglect at the Point had left many of these tenants desperate for change, and under these circumstances, CMJ’s proposal was appealing. Some tenants described it as a fight to preserve any subsidized housing at the Point under the threat of total redevelopment and takeover by institutions like UMass. Esther Santos was on the task force and was in support of the redevelopment by CMJ.

CMJ was good at selling the idea of a private, “mixed-income” community. They had consultants, secretaries, and evidence on their side — like the development at King’s Lynn. At the time, Leon Rock saw these improvements and advocated for CMJ.

Conor: “Mixed income” housing had strong support from Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor who had made funding available for the privatization of the project in Lynn.

Dukakis is a key character in that he represented the leading edge of a new faction of right-wing Democrats, alongside figures like Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas. This is a faction that would eventually take over the party in the 80s and 90s, most notably with Bill Clinton. The group had a lot of names: “neo-liberals,” “suburban liberals,” “New Democrats,” “Atari Democrats,” “technocrats.” But all these terms refer to the same thing: Politicians who pushed market solutions to social issues. They abandoned the old New Deal coalition with unions, and got their funding from white-collar professionals and the high-tech industry. They often ran to the right of Republicans on issues like law and order, housing, and welfare. Here’s the historian Lily Geismer:

Conor: Figures like Dukakis claimed to be anti-ideological. Policies like “mixed income” housing were framed as common-sense fixes to failures brought on by big government. But their supposedly unbiased pragmatism obscured a deep commitment to the free market, to low taxes, and to a government that served business over people.

Alejandro: Linda Wade held a seat on the tenant task force and was more skeptical of CMJ. She felt tenants were being wined and dined, and that CMJ wasn’t giving them the full picture of the plan.

Conor: Cappy Pinderhughes, the sociologist and ex-Panther, along with Linda, connected what was going on at the Point to the rise of “Black capitalism.”

Alejandro: While five developers ultimately made bids, the task force eventually voted in support of their closest collaborator, CMJ. This meant that, in 1984, Columbia Point would be the first federally subsidized project sold off to private developers.

Alejandro: That’s Sister Joyce McMullin, who ran an organization on Columbia Point called Project Care and Concern with a fellow nun. The two nuns clashed plenty with Corcoran and the task force, especially when their organization lost its space at the Point in 1988. Tenants and friends of the nuns held a vigil in protest.

Conor: CMJ got tax breaks and support thanks to Democratic allies like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. They got $21 million in grant money from HUD, $75 million from private equity, including, later on, $34 million from Chevron. They got a $151 million dollar mortgage from the Massachusetts Housing Financing Agency and $3 million more directly from the Massachusetts government via chapter 884. This was a provision established after the Lynn privatization, and, quote, “provided a legal basis for Housing Authorities to demolish projects when renovation was deemed economically infeasible.” According to the New Yorker in 2009, Barney Frank, quote, “shepherded” this whole privatization process at Columbia Point. We never found out whether this meant greasing the wheels early on when he was in the mayor’s administration, or when he was in Washington. When we interviewed him, he denied having anything to do with the conversion.

Alejandro: In preparation for construction, tenants were all consolidated into a few buildings. The groundbreaking for the new Harbor Point was in 1987, and the celebration was attended by politicians like John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, Joe Moakley, Mike Dukakis, and Bill Bulger.

Leon Rock supported CMJ.

Today, he recognizes the Harbor Point project for what it is.

CMJ didn’t just change the name and appearance of the Point. They also took over as management, bringing in a new set of rules to make the property attractive to market rate tenants. That meant policing, intimidation, harassment and in many cases, eviction. The developer called it “the blitz.” That’s next time, on People’s History.

We want to dedicate this episode to Reverend Bill Loesch, who sadly passed away during the making of this documentary, and more recently, Chuck Turner. Two really important leaders who helped us a great deal. Thank you.

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 by Laura Foner and Bill Cunningham. Editorial help from Ben Shapiro, Alissa Quart, and David Wallis. Our theme music by Marisa Anderson. Our score is by Visitor, which is a project of Liz Harris and Ilyas Ahmed.

People’s History Podcast is an independent radio series. It is not related to the book, A People’s History of the United States, or related projects.

It is presented by Jacobin magazine with help from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Thank you for listening.

From Jacobin magazine, a new audio documentary about struggles in the United States.

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