Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: Busing and Desegregation, an Interview with Kevin Boyle

Kevin Boyle
I really love linking history with images. I think it’s such a powerful thing, and it’s set in Getty obviously has this incredible archives and I’ve loved Origins for a very long time, I wrote one of the an essay for Origins a number of years ago that I still I’m really proud of actually which feels weird to say that, but I’m really proud of that essay. So it was kind of this perfect marriage, right? The minute I saw it, I thought, oh, pictures, Origins, Getty, this is so cool, and then I did it kind of in the opposite way that I often deal with images. I knew I wanted to write about busing and so what I did was I went through looking for everything about busing, and the reason I wanted to write about busing is that I am convinced that busing, the idea of busing is actually the most radical. I don’t want to overstate it, but I don’t want to understate it either. It’s one of the most radical moments of the American Civil Rights Revolution and we never think of it that way because what we do as historians and I do it too, is we tend to think of radicalism in the obvious ways, right? That we think of radicalism as being connected with what the 20th century defined as radicalism, communism, socialism, or in black history, black nationalism, which in the late 60s, becomes embodied in movements, like say, the Panthers, right, which is, of course linked to Marxism in various ways and it is radical, I’m not trying to say it isn’t. I’m just trying to say there’s ways that you can expand our concept of radicalism and this one we don’t think of as radical because it comes it really comes out of an organization, the NAACP, who we don’t think of as radical, we think of it’s kind of the opposite, right? But the reason that I think it’s so radical, is that so much of, really, the entire burden of racial activism and racial change in this country, fell on black people. They were the ones who had to kind of bear the weight of racial change. That’s true to this day, obviously. What busing did or tried to do is a better way of putting it is to say, “You know what, white people have to bear that weight too.” And that’s one of the reasons that it had such massive blowback, that I do not want under any circumstances, to try to narrow down the accomplishments of African American activism in the 1960s. There is sweeping change that people put in place Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, the war on poverty, those are really important things, and I am not trying to minimize them. But the truth of it is that, for a lot of those changes, they didn’t directly impact white people living say out in the suburbs of Chicago, or in the suburbs of Columbus. It didn’t touch their lives they saw it on TV. Oftentimes, at least a portion of those white people supported those changes, but it wasn’t saying to them, you know what you have a responsibility too for racial change. busing did, and that’s what makes it so dramatic, so radical it was the sweeping program of social engineering that said, whites have to bear burdens too, and it is a burden, you know, you’re sending, putting your kid on the bus and he’s going across the town or whatever, it’s a big deal. I mean I wouldn’t, I’m not try to minimize that, in fact, I’m doing the opposite. That’s why I think it’s important that we think about it. I decided that I wanted it to be a color photo, and so that kind of narrowed down the range of photos I could use and what drew me to this photo was, first of all, the photo that I used, centers a child. So it is a black child and I wanted that. I wanted to make sure that the photo said, you know, this was about children, it wasn’t just adults involved here and then the photo kind of juxtaposes the black child actually getting on the bus to go home that’s labeled wrong. It says he’s arriving, he’s clearly not arriving he is going home, and there’s a policeman watching over him getting on the bus. And the reason that there’s a policeman watching him getting on the bus is that this is in Louisville, when Louisville first implemented its busing program and there was intense white violence. So intense white violence that the city and the state together decided that every single bus running in the second week of busing in the city was going to have an armed guard on it and what this really highlighted for me was the intensity of the blowback, that here was this policy that was going to say white kids and black kids are both going to be bearing this burden. But because of the intensity of that white resistance, the burden went back on the black kids, and this was a visualization of that. I don’t mean, at all to reduce black history, to the Civil Rights Movement. Obviously, it’s so broader and so richer than that, that’s just what I focus on, because I focused on social movements. But I think it’s so important to realize that the struggle for racial justice encompassed so many people, including children, in fact, children are pivotal to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. This was really, really hard to put kids in that position, and to this day now, adults, well, even aging adults at this stage, right? Both black kids and white kids will talk about their experience of being bused in a way that gives you a sense of how great that burden was. Now I’ll go off in a slightly expansive direction. I recently wrote a book on the 1960s, and what I tried to do is personalize the experience of the 1960s and one of the stories that I told to start the really the chapter that begins the story of civil rights activism is Elizabeth Eckford, in Little Rock, in 195, and what I really wanted to drive home was both the courage she’s one of the Little Rock Nine, and she is the member of Little Rock Nine, who didn’t get the information about coming together into the school the first day, they never got into the school, obviously, so what happened was that she showed up alone, and walked through this massive white mob and her experience of that was what I was trying to describe, because it is this incredible act of courage and it is a beautiful and powerful symbol of the kind of moral power that the Civil Rights Movement brought to bear. But it’s also the story of a 15 year old girl scared to death for good reason and that’s part of the story too.