Common Ground

by J. Anthony Lukas

Start Free Trial

Why did Alice McGoff oppose busing in Common Ground, what strategies did she use, and why were they unsuccessful?

Quick answer:

Alice McGoff was opposed to busing because she thought it meant that school would be a different place for her children than what it had been for her. She also feared that it would lead to the erosion of Charlestown’s values. She viewed her struggle as a way of retaining some control and choice over her children’s education.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, author J. Anthony Lukas looks at the desegregation of Boston’s schools in the years following the decision by Judge W. Arthur Garrity of the US Supreme Court. Judge Garrity decreed that racial imbalance in public schools would be addressed by busing students from predominantly black neighborhoods to predominantly white ones and vice versa. The substantial movement that built up against busing in Charlestown has been described through the actions and decisions of Alice McGoff, a widowed mother of seven children.

In anticipation of the busing, Alice McGoff put her three youngest children into Catholic schools in areas close to Charlestown. Her three older children, however, were assigned to Charlestown High School, where her son Danny had graduated as senior class president that very year. Her violent opposition to busing did not stem from the fact that her children found it difficult to attend school in Roxbury, or that they couldn’t walk to their own school. She considered that busing was taking away her right to decide where her children could study. This represented a loss of control that she wasn’t willing to accept.

Alice was proud of her roots in Charlestown. Her great-grandfather had been the first to arrive in Boston in 1865, where he first lived in Somerville, the North End, before moving to Charlestown in 1893. She considered herself the quintessential “Townie”—tough, strongly Catholic, and rooted in an identity where you knew your neighbours and whom to trust or not to trust. The outrage she felt at the thought of African-American students from Roxbury getting bused to the school she attended, which was now her children’s school, was based on ideas she had about African-American stereotypes. Townies like her regarded Roxbury as a danger zone and saw the consequences of children from Roxbury and Charlestown studying together as the three “Rs,” standing for “Riots, Robbery and Rape.”

To Alice, the idea of sending her children to a school halfway across the city when they had a perfectly good school right across the street was utterly ridiculous. Moreover, what she knew of conditions in Roxbury strengthened her resolve not to put any of her children on a bus. Riot, Rape, and Robbery might be a little strong, but she knew it wasn’t safe over there, and when the chairman asked for recruits to help form a Charlestown chapter of a new statewide organization—Massachusetts Citizens Against Forced Busing—Alice raised her hand.

Joining the struggle against busing early on, Alice became particularly active among the women who led the agitation from 1974 to 1976. In an ironic twist, the foremost examples for the women of how to express their views came from the movement for Civil Rights that had roiled the Southern States and achieved desegregation a decade earlier. Alice and her peers. stepped out of home to don social and political roles for the first time. They drew inspiration from the peaceful and non-violent marches that had drawn worldwide attention to the movement to end racial discrimination in America.

The women planned a “Prayer March” that did not begin as one: many of them broke into spirited renditions of songs like “We are the girls from Charlestown,” or “Here we go, Charlestown.” But when they reached Monument Square they were confronted with the might of the American state amassed as line upon line of uniformed personnel from the Boston Police, the MDC police, the dreaded TPF (Tactical Patrol Force), and US Marshals from the “riot-trained Special Operations Group.” In the face of police, the women took refuge in the chant of “Our Father who art in Heaven…”

The confrontation with the police proved to be a heady elixir for the women, who subsequently organized themselves to take their anti-busing message across in many different ways. They used the institutions of Charlestown like the Home and School Association, the Charlestown Education Committee, the Little City Hall, and the Kennedy Center to protest with the Principal of Charleston High School about falling educational standards and the use of TPF on the school premises. They created banners to see them through the anti-busing struggle like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights) and Powder Keg. They attended meetings at City Hall, including a the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, which Governor Dukakis could not address because it had grown too acrimonious for him to appear.

In addition, Alice McGoff and her peers used the symbolic values of patriotism and the Catholic faith to bind their struggle with a larger view of the “Townie” identity and its shared celebrations and sorrows. This meant that they were vocal and visible in “Prayer Marches”, the “Living Rosary” (which called for volunteers to recite all the prayers in the prescribed order), celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, and finally, guerrilla theater in the form of a funereal procession to mark the death of Charlestown.

One drizzly afternoon, Alice, Lisa, Robin, and Bobby McGoff joined 150 other Townies … in a procession up Bunker Hill. Six pallbearers carried a casket containing likenesses of Arthur Garrity, a Catholic church, the Bunker Hill Monument, and Charlestown High School. Most of the mourners wore black, the women in veils, carrying white lilies and keening for the dead in that piercing wail traditional among the Irish. When they reached the Monument grounds, a high school bugler blew taps across the misty hillside. Pat Russell delivered a eulogy. Then they descended to that greasy stretch of black water dubbed Montego Bay, where the coffin was lowered into the sea.

By 1976, after going to Washington to demonstrate at the Washington monument and subsequently making a second trip to get their US Congressman to throw his weight behind the anti-busing struggle, Alice McGoff and the women of Charlestown were faced with the fact that their movement had not succeeded. This was to do with the splintering of the various anti-busing factions in Charlestown as much as it had to do with the resolute rejection of their concerns by federal authorities. Alice was also upset by how the families in her social milieu, including her siblings and cousins, had chosen to side-step the issue of desegregation and continue their lives elsewhere; most headed to the suburbs.

Alice McGoff saw her crusade to end busing in very personal terms. She took it on as a means of keeping her traditional values and identity safe in a changing world. She was saddened by her own family not seeing it in the same terms.

Alice could face facts as well as the next person: she was the poor Kirk, the widow with seven kids, the project dweller with limited resources; there was no way in the world she could move to the suburbs even if she wanted to. But even if she came into a lot of money, she didn’t think she’d ever leave Charlestown—she was rooted there, a Townie for life. And she couldn’t understand how her brothers and sisters could remain so utterly aloof from the struggle which threatened to destroy their birthplace.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial