Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with Robert Kiley

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Interviewer: Jackie Shearer
Production Team: D
Interview Date: October 18, 1989

Camera Rolls: 4138-4139
Sound Rolls: 482

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 18, 1989, for . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of


JACKIE SHEARER: So I'd like you to help us set up the committee in Boston in relation to the issue of quality education, school desegregation, busing.
ROBERT KILEY: Well the school committee--five person group--had been working the school desegregation issue for years and years. Louise Hicks is a name that will live forever part and parcel with the school committee. And you have to remember that she ran twice for mayor, by the early seventies. Once in 1967 and once in 1970 as a member of the school committee. Her opponent both times was Kevin White. And the issue certainly in 1967, was school busing. In fact in the late 1960s the term school busing emerged in Boston as a national question. Mrs. Hicks was on the cover of a news magazine before she ran for mayor. So the question of the quality of education, the racial composition of Boston school districts went back a long way and are very much a part of the fabric of the school committee. By the early 70s the issue had been worked, and worked again, and reworked, and worked again, and overworked. And that's the stage for 1972, 1973, 1974 and the law suit


JACKIE SHEARER: How rational was the city discourse on race, and busing and school desegregation.
ROBERT KILEY: I don't think it was very rational at all, and as time went on, and it became increasingly clear that the, that the, what the judge would do, ah there was a kind of, ah, delusion going on within the city itself. I think a lot of people were ignoring the issue. I think it's not unfair to say that the business community, the financial community, and I would say the religious community took a walk, in the early 1970s. Leaving, really, only the politicians and the parents as the people who cared about the issue; and in a certain sense the parents got pitted against each other: White neighborhoods against Black neighborhoods, in a way that no one had ever bargained for[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 207-08. Little planning went on so that when the Judge finally came down with a decision in June of 1974, there was quite literally no mechanism, no instrument by which school desegregation was going to be accomplished just three months after he released his decision.


JACKIE SHEARER: Um, can you give us a little bit about the role of race in school politics was?
ROBERT KILEY: Well at the risk of oversimplifying it, I think fair to say that Black parents found themselves throughout the 1960s in the positions of supplicants, and unsuccessful supplicants, ah. Whites dominated the school committee. Race quickly became an issue. And, ah it became a highly charged very emotional issue. But neither the School Department or the City Government was really prepared to deal with race, once the judge had acted--once the courts had found that, ah, the system was really a segregated system, so that the years 1974-1975, which would have been difficult in any event, became almost impossible.


JACKIE SHEARER: Now I'd like you to think back to that day in October '74, when the mob in South Boston attacked the Haitian on his way to pick up his wife from work, and beat him up. How had this city come to that place? Where was the leadership.
ROBERT KILEY: The attack on the Haitian, which occurred roughly a month after school started can't be seen in isolation because violence was, was a major dimension. The day after school opened, the first day, was a moderately calm day, but by day two, day three, things were in very, very difficult straits both in South Boston and in Hyde Park. So that the Haitian event was a kind of, the attack on the Haitian, was a kind of exclamation point, but there had been incidents involving kids on buses coming from a staging area on the edge of South Boston into the high school and junior high school complex. Nary a day went by without there being a close call of one kind or another, and of course the South Boston schools were under-attended, to say the least, for most of that first year. But there was a highly charged atmosphere and the sense one had on the ground was that almost anything could happen. The goal really of the people in charge at that stage was to try to keep people from being killed.


JACKIE SHEARER: How do you understand that, that things weren't more like this.
ROBERT KILEY: Well, I came to Boston in 1972, ah, and found the attitudes surrounding the Boston school case, which was already being litigated, to be very odd. There was one group of people who was reluctant to admit that there was even a lawsuit, or that there were issues at stake. They were people who tended to look in the other direction. If they had kids, their kids were in the parochial schools or the private schools. Then you had, you had people who were deeply dependent on the public schools for education. White parents and Black parents. They were pitted against one another. And then you had the school committee, which was really not so much concerned about school policy as about advancing themselves politically. The school committee then had a reputation as a means to higher office, as Louise Hicks seemed to be underscoring, although, paradoxically, in the case of Mrs. Hicks, I think she really did care about these issues. She was opposed to school busing. She genuinely was against it. She was not just another politician trying to use the issue to advance herself. I think this was a question, a conviction in her case.


JACKIE SHEARER: So now, that leads into another question which is, we have footage of Mrs. Hicks talking to a mob outside South Boston High who had come after a White kid had been stabbed, and she's pleading with them to let the Black students inside return to Roxbury, and the mob yells back, "NO!" They won't listen to her. What does that make you think of in terms of Mrs. Hicks and, and what she did?
ROBERT KILEY: Well, during the 1960s in a certain sense, she became a one issue candidate, and the issue was school busing. Temperamentally, I think it's fair to say that she was a rather moderate person, and a not unreasonable person. I think if you were dealing with her on issues outside the context of school desegregation, she was an easy person to deal with. I think her natural instinct, ah, was one of conciliation and peace. She was not out looking for trouble. And, temperamentally, not, ah, a demagogue or an agitator, but she certainly found her issue, and she worked it very hard and she had a real following and a real constituency. As often happens with really emotional issues as school busing became in Boston, your constituency gets out in front of you. You are running to keep up with them, and I think during the couple years that preceded the judges finding, certainly in the months that preceded the opening of school in the fall of '74, the constituency was really way out in front of the leaders and the leaders were racing to get up, and it became very emotional and very difficult to control. When school opened, and violence broke out, ah, as it did throughout that fall, then people began to come back into it, business leaders and others, but it was too late to be of very much help in 1974.


JACKIE SHEARER: Did things have to be the way that they were? Could things have been different?
ROBERT KILEY: Well, I'm not, ah, a determinist. Sure things could have been different. Ah, maybe there, there might have been some elections in the school committee that might have turned out differently. Not all the members of the Boston School Committee during the ten years prior to school desegregation were of one mind on the question of equality of education or racial composition of the schools. So an election here and an election there might have turned out differently. I think if, if moderate leadership, people who cared about education, and who knew that race was an issue in Boston had gotten engaged earlier, and if enough of them had gotten engaged earlier, the outcome would have been different.


JACKIE SHEARER: But now you said that it was very difficult to be rational on this issue. Um, could you speak to what the, the climate of, of leadership was in respect to this?
ROBERT KILEY: Well, when I say it became difficult to be rational on the issue, when it became more and more clear that the judge was going to make a finding that would cause school desegregation to occur, that indeed the school was in fact segregated, that a lot of decisions about resources and assignments had been made on a racial grounds, when that became clear, and there was no mystery about this, then to be opposed what the judge ultimat- to be opposed to what the judge ultimately was going to do, no longer became reasonable or rational. It had to become emotional, and you would hear arguments like, "Well, the reason why we can't have racial mixing in the school is that there'll be fights and there'll be violence and there'll be all kinds of awful things that will happen." These are Catch-22 sorts of propositions, because in order for statements like that to be credible, the conditions already have to exist which are emotional and irrational, and that's the situation we had by the time of the early '70s in Boston.


JACKIE SHEARER: So I'd like you to describe the relationship between race and politics in Boston.
ROBERT KILEY: Well by the early 1970s the genie of racism was out of the bottle and stalking around. One of the things that was very interesting about that period 74, 73: leading up to the judges decision as to school desegregation. There was little if any communication going on between Whites and Blacks in what seemed to be an inevitable situation. Ah, there weren't meetings out in the margins. People weren't willing to face up to the fact that one day there was going to have to be work going on together. So I can't help, but, but believe however much we look ba- at that period but ba- at that period and try to rationalize everyone's behavior, that racial feelings were at work and undergirded, ah, what happened in the early 1970s, there's just no way around it. And that genie was stalking around in a way that it got out of control, and it just wasn't able to be managed in the fall of 1974.
JACKIE SHEARER: I think we lost the end of that, but we got a complet--
JACKIE SHEARER: So I'd like your perspective from the inside of the relationship between race and city politics in Boston.
ROBERT KILEY: Well, the question of race and politics in Boston, early 1970s, I guess, turns out not to be that complicated. I was in a somewhat unique situation in that I was a deputy mayor and charged with the responsibility of making the judge's order happen in the fall of 1974. But the genie of racism was already out of the bottle, was stalking the city, and among other things, that made it extremely hard, for even people of good will, Whites and Blacks, to talk to one another on this issue. So that in the months leading up to the judge's findings, in June of '74, and then in the intense months leading up to the opening of school in the fall, racism really did lurk in the background. It had become very volatile, very highly charged, and very difficult to get a dialogue going. I don't think really effective cooperation, collaboration, and communication really started to occur until after school opened, after there had been violent incidents, and then people really got scared and concerned, and you had people from all walks of life, actually waking, up trying to come to their senses. But it took a good year, year and a half to regain control of that situation.