Interview with Thomas Atkins
QUESTION 11
JACKIE SHEARER:

OK, now I would like to have you give me in as succinct a fashion as you can, the story that you told us in the kitchen about, beginning with the 40 death threats and the calls to your kid and the warning about something and so forth.

TOM ATKINS:

From, approximately August of '74 until the end of the '74-'75 school year because of the central role I was playing as essentially the spokesperson for the community on the school case, I was targeted for intimidation. So I started getting death threats. I was averaging about 40 death threats per week. I had had that before so it didn't particularly bother me. However, it took some rather bizarre aspects. Ah, initially these calls were coming in to my office at the State House, to the NAACP office and to my home I was getting letters at all three places. And I found out, much after the fact, that some of the calls that came into my house were being answered by my children, who, like kids all over the country I guess, tried to protect their daddy. And people would call to speak to me and to tell me that they were going to blow my head off only to find themselves being asked by one of my kids "Why are you going to kill my daddy?" And it was a, you know, it was embarrassing kind of thing for them to have to try to explain this. Some of the people who, who started off calling for that purpose, wound up calling back to talk to my kids. I got wind of this in a rather peculiar way. One night I was home watching television. I got a call from a guy who identified himself as having called before. And he wouldn't give me his name. He said, "You know me. You'll recognize me if I give you my name." He said, "But I've talked to your kids." I said, "What do you mean you've talked to my kids?" He said, "Yeah, I've talked to your kids." He said, "What I want to tell you is this." He said, ah, ah, "There was a meeting tonight in South Boston and if those kids go over to South Boston High School tomorrow, all hell's going to break loose. They're going to stone the buses. They're going to attack the buses. They're going to turn them over. They're going to burn them." And I said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "That's the message." He says, "I know what I'm talking about." Well, I never talked to this guy before. I had no way of crediting this. And, so I wasn't inclined to initially. I went back and started watching television. But the more I thought about it, the less I believed I could take the chance that he was right. Ah, that he was not right. So I called the Superintendent of Schools and, and relayed the information. Superintendent, ah, suggested that I call and I did call the police commissioner in Boston. Ah, I talked with him and his information was that yes there had been a meeting that night in South Boston and yes something was planned for the next day. He didn't know what. He hadn't gotten the information yet. I called this, the person at the State level who was in charge of the State Police, 'cause that's who were, who was, at that time, in charge of protecting the kids in South Boston and I passed this information on to him. And finally, ah, we concluded that we simply couldn't take the chance that those kids had to be moved out of that school the next day. There was no time to notify individual parents or children, so the plan was to meet the kids as they came into the Bayside Mall in South Boston, the Columbia Point Bayside area, ah, where typically they would be put on, they would be taken from the buses that brought them from home and put on, ah, buses that would take them up to the high school, in effect, in a convoy. Police cars and motorcycles on each side. That day we intercepted them and took them instead to U Mass, Boston where we had arranged with, through the President of U Mass and the--



JACKIE SHEARER:

Lets pick up with U Mass--

TOM ATKINS:

We had made arrangements ah, to have people from the community come in and, and serve as, as freedom school teachers. Ah, so none of the kids who were supposed to go to South Boston showed up that day. As my informant had told me however, there was a crowd of well over 1500 people, between 1500-2000 people waiting for the buses and when it became clear that the buses were not going to arrive, those people were very upset. Finally broke up and one contingent of the crowd that had broken up was going down the hill from the high school, which sits up on a hill, to Columbia Road and as they got to Columbia Road the light changed for people to cross the street, and it happened, as fate would have it, that the second car in line, waiting for the light to change, ah, was a car in which this Black man, a Haitian, was riding by himself. He was on his way home from work, he worked at the Gillette Company. It was early in the morning and one of the people in the crowd saw him and said "There's a nigger. Let's get him." And so they attacked this car. He couldn't move his car forward. He couldn't move it backward. So he got out of the car and ran. They chased this man through the streets of South Boston and they finally, they finally caught him on a porch trying to get into a house. Nobody would open a door for him. And he was beaten with sticks and bottles. At South Boston High School it was quiet that day. At U Mass we had each of the kids fill out a questionnaire describing to us any problems they had, had, whether anybody had had mistreated them and if so, who it was. We asked them for their name and their address and the phone number and the school they had attended the year before and the names of any witnesses and, and so forth and a simple description of the problem they had. It was just a one page form. It was 8 1/2 by 14 inch form, legal size. And every one of the kids did fill these out and at the end of the day I collected these and, there was so much going on I didn't have time to read them that day. About a week later I was sitting in my office one night and I reached into my briefcase and here were these forms. So, I took them out and I began, sort of absently to read through them and it was, it was like being hit with a sledge hammer. It was an experience I'll never forget as long as I live. Because as I read through one after another of these forms, what I saw, was that these couldn't spell. They could not write a simple, declaratory sentence. They couldn't spell the name of their street. They couldn't spell the name of their community. They couldn't spell Roxbury. They couldn't spell Boston as in South Boston. They couldn't spell high as in high school. They couldn't spell negro. They couldn't spell Black, they couldn't spell nigger. And as I read these forms, none of which were grammatically correct or spelling proper. I just started to cry and--



JACKIE SHEARER:

OK, lets finish this up from when you read the questionnaires.

TOM ATKINS:

About a week later I was reaching for something in my briefcase and I found, ah, this group of questionnaires that the kids had filled out that day at South Boston when they were at U Mass. So, I took them out and I started, just sort of reading through them, and it was, I was shocked. It was a, it was a powerful, powerful experience. Ah, as I read through these questionnaires it became clear to me that these kids couldn't read and they couldn't write and they certainly couldn't spell. They couldn't make a simple, declaratory sentence no longer than one page, one sheet. They couldn't spell the names of the streets on which they lived. They couldn't spell the word Black. They couldn't spell White or, or Boston or Roxbury where they lived. They couldn't spell high as in South Boston High School. As I, as I sat there I just started to cry. It was, it was, um, impossible to explain the feeling of pain, on the one hand but on the other hand, I knew we were right. We had to get those kids out of those schools and this proved it.