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Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

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Winner of 3 different awards, this is a story of the busing crisis in Boston. The book traces the history of three families: the working-class African-American Twymons, the working-class Irish McGoffs, and the middle-class Yankee Divers. It gives brief genealogical histories of each families, focusing on how the events they went through illuminated Boston history, before narrowing its focus to the racial tension of the 1960s and the 1970s. Through their stories, Common Ground focuses on racial and class conflicts in two Boston neighborhoods: the working-class Irish-American enclave of Charlestown and the uneasily integrated South End.

688 pages, Paperback

First published August 12, 1985

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About the author

J. Anthony Lukas

5 books16 followers
Jay Anthony Lukas was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, probably best known for his 1985 book Common Ground : A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families a study of race relations and school busing in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid - 1970's.

Lukas began his professional journalism career at the Baltimore Sun, then moved to The New York Times. He stayed at the ''Times'' for nine years, working as a roving reporter, and serving at the Washington, New York, and United Nations bureaus, and overseas in Ceylon, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Africa, and Zaire. After working at the New York Times Magazine for a short time in the 1970s, Lukas quit reporting to pursue a career in book and magazine writing,

In 1997, while his final book, Big Trouble, was undergoing final revisions, Lukas committed suicide by hanging himself with a bathrobe sash.He had been diagnosed with depression approximately ten years earlier,

Bibliography information from Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 247 reviews
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,159 reviews746 followers
April 25, 2021
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Among the best narrative nonfiction books I have ever read, perhaps the best. Common Ground is very long (I mostly listened but partly read it over the course of two months), but I would not have parted with a page of it. Sometimes you get the point of a book quickly but it has lots of padding. The point of this book was how complex race relations in general, and busing in particular, were in the 1960s and 1970s in Boston. Establishing and understanding that point took inhabiting the minds of several different characters from several perspectives and watching them change over the course of a decade. Moreover, every time Anthony Lukas introduces anything new he goes back to its origins and full history, making the mini histories of Irish, Black Bostonians, the Great Migration, The Boston Globe, the Charlestown high school, Judge Garrity, The Boston Globe, etc. etc. etc. each incredibly interesting in its own right and an important part of the overall story.

The book centers around three families: a Black family in Dorchester who have children that are bused to school in Charlestown, a working class Irish family in Charlestown that protests against busing but the daughter comes around to be more supportive of it, and a liberal lawyer/political aide/law professor that moves to the South End but gets increasingly concerned about crime, becomes a semi-vigilante, and eventually leaves for the suburbs. Lukas shows each of them, portrays them with sympathy, in stories that are heartbreaking, suspenseful, moving and painful (OK, I had a synonym for that already but it deserved to be said twice). Much of it seems like history at this point but too much of it is still too present as well.

I appreciated that Lukas had essentially no editorial interjections, no perspective that I could discern, just a narrative that the author was sharing to help readers make up their own minds--or unmake up their minds.
Profile Image for Brooke.
25 reviews
June 16, 2009
This may be the best non-fiction book I have ever read. It chronicles the lives of three families in Boston - Irish-American, African-American and WASP (don't mean that negatively!) from the night of the MLK riots in 1968 thru school desegregation. It's a great read of lawyers but also a great read for anyone interested in city issues - be they Boston's issues or any other urban areas. Would recommend to anyone and have already bought it for several friends!
Profile Image for Max.
337 reviews288 followers
December 3, 2014
Lukas brings to life the chaos of Boston’s school busing crisis and racial conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His poignant account contrasts the experiences of three families from different communities: poor inner city black, poor inner city Irish, and middle class college educated white. Tracing each family’s ancestry he illustrates the evolution of each community’s values and then shows us how those values guide the families and communities response to the crisis.

Throughout Lukas digresses to vignettes of politicians and community leaders: Mayor Kevin White, School Board Chairman Louise Day Hicks, Federal Judge Arthur Garrity, Boston Globe Editor Tom Winship, Cardinal Cushing, Cardinal Medeiros and more. He also touches on national figures offering little tidbits on Joe and Ted Kennedy, Tip O’Neil, John McCormack even George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. The vignettes show us how ineffective, incapable and unprepared Boston’s leaders were in handling the turmoil.

Despite frequent interruptions to profile city leaders, the family stories are compelling. We feel and sympathize with each family’s hopes and fears. We understand their differing perspectives and why their positions make sense even though they conflict with each other. In this respect the book is a great accomplishment.

Unfortunately we are not left with hope; rather we are left only with the intractability of the problem of fear and racial conflict. The social disparities that had taken centuries to develop were not going to be solved in neat quick strokes. Even though well intentioned, outsiders imposing formalistic solutions on the disadvantaged and dysfunctional were not going to achieve results. Eventually everyone began to realize this, but there were no answers. Today with the turmoil in Ferguson as a fresh reminder, solutions still appear distant.
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
692 reviews52 followers
February 4, 2012
This is a masterpiece of a book. It is about Boston in the 1970s, though if it had been described to me only as such I'm sure I wouldn't have picked it up. Instead, it was lent to me by a good friend who recommended it highly.

Reading "Common Ground" felt a lot like watching "The Wire," and I can't help but wonder whether David Simon read Lukas' book and was influenced by it. CG is not as focused on crime per se as is The Wire, but it is a similar (and similarly successful) attempt to tell the story of the city through telling the stories of the characters. Lukas does a good job of portraying the Divers, the Twymons, and the McGoffs as relatable and interesting characters, while also subtly showing the ways in which each is acted upon by the larger forces of race, class, politics, the justice system, the educational system, etc.

I think Lukas intends to tell the story as a classical tragedy in which the city is in some sense the protagonist, and the imposition of busing the tragic flaw or mistake. That's not to say that it's a polemical book; one of the things that makes it so tragic is that busing was so well-intentioned and it's not at all clear if another course of action would have been any better. But by the end of the book, bad things that happen to the characters seem basically inevitable.

Of course, the flaw went even deeper than busing. Lukas writes the backstories of the characters as far back as possible, often into the 1800s and 1700s. So much of the tension in Boston in the 20th century seems to trace back ultimately to the mass migrations of Irish and of freed slaves. The punishments for the crimes of England and the South seem to be visited upon Boston, for the transgression of opening itself to the refugees.
Profile Image for Norman Cohen.
50 reviews7 followers
September 4, 2020
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, and an essential book for anyone interested in the complex ways that race and class play out in American cities and in education.

Watching David Simon's excellent HBO mini-series "Show Me a Hero" inspired me to pick up "Common Ground" again, and I'm grateful that I did. One is about court-ordered desegregation of public housing in Yonkers, the other about court-ordered busing in Boston. What strikes me about both books is the utter intractability of the law when it imposed desegregation: Judges Sand in Yonkers and Garrity in Boston were emphatic that segregation could not stand, and they did not care in the least that in both cities, the people, the cops, the political will were not caught up.

In “Common Ground,” Lukas is sympathetic with the efforts of the law to bring about equality in education, but he also understands the cost to white ethnics whose way of life is utterly upended by busing, and to the politicians who have to enforce it. Busing utterly ruins Boston mayor Kevin White, for example, the most tragic figure in the book.

Lukas' book is written with great empathy towards the families that had to deal with busing, especially the McGoffs and their Irish-American friends. I have never read a truer examination of the white ethnic communities in urban late 20th century America.

The roughest part of the book has to do with the Divers, idealistic Harvard grads who want to remake the city as a progressive melting pot, only to be frustrated by the intractable problems of crime. I look at my Brooklyn and the mad rush to gentrify and wring the last penny by developers -- and I truly feel that the Divers' utopia of multiracial urban life has become a dream of the past.
Profile Image for CLM.
2,630 reviews178 followers
May 15, 2017
Several years ago, I was asked to give a Common Ground tour to a friend:

More recently, in my current job, I got the assignment of working on a grant at the Charlestown Housing Development so have spent a fair amount of time there. It has changed a lot since Lukas wrote the book, serving families from many ethnic backgrounds.

The book is compelling. It is a very odd experience reading this book as many of the characters in this book are individuals I have heard about my entire life, and my father was interviewed by the author. What makes Lukas' story compelling is the way he shows the motivation of different factions within Boston, a city divided by race, by neighborhood, and by ambition. Sadly, the angriest people in this book would have been better off fighting for better schools than fighting each other's race-inspired fears.
Profile Image for Ben.
92 reviews
July 31, 2008
This is a book that I had to read for a college course and I thought it was okay, but it really took a long time to get through and I didn't care that much in the end. But when I read it again after college, I realized how great it really is.
It takes a look at three families: one poor black family, one poor Irish family, and one young well-off, idealistic "Yankee" family. The book explores how they deal with each other during Boston's bussing crises of the 1970's. Admittedly, there is a LOT of detail given about each family's history, and it can get tiresome, but it's worth it.
In the end, this book is about racism, classism, gentrification, and (sometimes failed) idealism. If this floats your boat, check it out. But be warned: it's pretty long!
Profile Image for Jim.
3 reviews
April 7, 2012
My favorite genre is non-fiction, though it isn't easy to find a good selection. Either the author gets the history right but he/she can't write, or the author is a good writer but gets the history wrong. Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, is a Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece about an event in the 1960's and 1970's that nearly brought the great city of Boston, Massachusetts, to its knees. It narrates the story of how a well-meaning judge decided that the public schools in Boston were de-facto segregated, and he ordered that they be integrated - immediately.
The book relates the story of three families and how this decision affected them. The Twymon's, an African-American family living in Mattapan, were excited by the move,as it might improve the education for their children. The schools in Mattapan, a conclave of Boston, were surely inferior to those in some other parts of the city.
The McGoffs, a white family residing in Charlestown, another part of Boston, viewed the decision as an attempt to change the dynamics of the town and saw the new students scheduled to be bussed of their schools as interlopers. Even today, Charlestown is a close-knit part of the city where residents refer to each other as"Townies."
Finally, we meet the Divers, well-meaning do-gooders who move into the battle ground so as not to be seen also as merley do-gooders, unaffected by the decision.
What binds this book together are the wonderful characters and authentic settings, right in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument. Lukas manages to reach not only into the local politics and lifestyles, but his book extends all the way to Washington and to the Camelot that is the Kennedy legacy.
Common Ground is a page turner, an authentic look at one of the most tumultuous times in American history. If you like non-fiction, this is a must read. It will change the way you look at both education in America and how politics ofter have nothing to do with what is right.
Profile Image for Abraham.
60 reviews22 followers
September 3, 2009
This book is hands-down the most powerfully resonant book I've read since college. I devoured this book, and was changed by it. History is very far from my favorite reading genre. But this book was different for me in a number of crucial ways. For one thing, it concerns the place I've come to see as my home, greater Boston. So the events of this book take place in places that I actually am familiar with (unlike most history texts). I can visualize the geography described here, and while reading it, I would go out on my bike to check out the specific landmarks that are important in this book.

For another thing, this book is written in a much more accessible style than many other history books. Instead of focusing just on broad movements and political changes, Lukas zooms in to focus on three families in Boston, so that you get to see the more personal side of such earth-shaking cultural upheaval.

But the most powerful reason why this book has affected me so greatly is because nearly all facets of my life today in Boston are defined and still affected by these events. That was a unique reading experience--as I read, I saw how the world I know (especially from my position as a teacher in BPS) exists as it does largely because of the events described in this book.

If you live/work in the Boston area, you must read this book! If you care about racial/ethnic/class relations in America, you must read this book! If you are an American, you must read this book! Forget it, everyone just READ THIS BOOK!!!!!!!

Profile Image for Ben Loory.
Author 24 books672 followers
January 12, 2019
I lived in Charlestown, Mass for a year (many years ago) and really enjoyed finally coming to understand that place (at least a little bit) via this book. I also liked learning about how JFK's dad bought him the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which hadn't even been on the recommending panel's longlist (prizes are bullshit, exhibit 9,000). Also, the fact that for something like 50 years after the Irish started coming to Boston, Catholic priests weren't allowed inside Boston's hospitals, even to administer last rites—which meant that if you were Irish Catholic and deathly ill you probably didn't go to the hospital, for fear you would end up in hell. Crazy stuff!

Beyond that, this book is full of great stories and profiles—maybe a little heavy on some of the outlying (and ineffective) political players. I would have liked to have seen some coverage on the white students who were bused into black neighborhoods. Seemed like a pretty heavy curtain drawn over that part of the story. Also we learned very little about the black political leaders pressing for change (other than MLK, who dies at the very start).

Anyway... in general, just an incredibly powerful book about a terribly depressing planet. But it did have a few bright moments! I actually went and looked up a couple of the high schoolers on Facebook, to see how they're doing now. And some of them (now approaching their 60s) don't seem like they became actual demons! So that's good. Encouraging.
Profile Image for Julie Sizer.
17 reviews6 followers
September 23, 2016
Took me so long to read, because it's 650+ pages and teensy text, but well worth it - especially for educators working in Boston.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
83 reviews
June 6, 2018
Wow. This may be one of the most important books I've ever read. Boston is truly one of the great loves of my life: I give walking tours, work in a souvenir shop, and do research as part of my full-time job. But I have always known that it is not a perfect city, and that its history is far from pure. It is easy to idolize its colonial heritage and ignore the rest of what has happened (and is happening) here. I am so utterly grateful for this book, which has allowed me to learn about Boston's many wounds throughout its history. I posted an earlier comment while reading this book about all the questions I had always had about Boston: why certain areas had little to no T access, how certain neighborhoods had become and/or remained so utterly segregated, why so much of Massachusetts in general has an isolationist, "You're not from here" mentality... and this book answered all of them. This is more than a book about busing in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a history of Boston, an examination of this city of neighborhoods and how the government has never really been representative of or really understood its people and how the people came to deeply mistrust Beacon Hill and City Hall. In the government's need to have this city be seen as a "world class city," it has left many of its residents behind in favor of suburbanites and tourists, incoming corporations and college students. In all ways, Boston is great and terrible. It is different than it was when this book was published, or during the events described, but in many ways it isn't. How do we celebrate our history while also rising above it? How do we recognize what makes us unique and distinct without resisting progress?

Despite everything, I still love Boston, and I am grateful to J. Anthony Lukas for creating this monumental work so that I can better understand my home and its people. I am especially in awe of how he refuses to demonize any of the three families that he profiles throughout "Common Ground," despite how easy it could have been to label the Boston Irish woman Alice McGoff as "racist," or the South End African-American woman Rachel Twymon as a "welfare queen." These are human beings with human stories, and all too often (and especially in today's America), we are all too happy to generalize people based on viewpoints that we may or may not agree with. But racism, while extremely relevant and present throughout this story, is only a small part how and why busing came to be, and to understand the rest, you have to read this book. I cannot recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Kevin.
Author 5 books314 followers
January 4, 2022
"Common Ground" is nearly 700 pages of original reporting about three families living through the integration of Boston's public school in the mid 1970s (look up "Boston Busing Riots" if you don't yet know what a shameful chapter of recent American history this is). Let's get that on the table right away. It's dense, epic, terribly important and has aged not a second in its importance: We are at each other's throats as a nation over precisely who America belongs to and what it means. The kids throwing rocks at a bus full of black students newly attending their high school and shouting about how it is their freedom in danger are the Proud Boys of yesteryear.

What "Common Ground" is not is a great reading experience. It has moments when you stop and simply cannot believe the depth of work Mr. Lukas has done and the kindness and soul he brings to it. There are way too many more when you say two pages would have worked just as well and he gave us two chapters.

Though I am positive Mr. Lukas got the best editing publishing could buy for this project, there still feels like no interview was left out, no lede unfollowed no matters how little in the end it actually mattered. My firend whom I read it with compared it to accelerating one mile per hour at a time. You're still driving/ But you're missing many of the pleasures of driving.

If dense, chewy, epic, important and sad are your bag, none of those complaints will matter to you. Myself, I'm sad that while I am so fortunate to have read "Common Ground" I cannot recommend it with a full heart. Somewhere in all of the magnificent things it is doing, it sacrificed the common ground an author must also have not just with their subject and the demands of the story but their reader too.
Profile Image for David.
504 reviews32 followers
February 26, 2011
This is one of the best books I've ever read. Grand in scope and much more than the busing crisis in Boston. I particularly liked how it described how the same events were experienced so differently by the three families (e.g. the assassinations of JFK & MLK); something you know intuitively but don't truly appreciate until someone like J. Anthony Lukas informs you so compellingly. Also very effective was the way the author described the influence of outside sources such as the Catholic church and the Boston Globe. The themes of this story could apply to many other places and times. One word of warning - this is not a light, breezy book.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
301 reviews46 followers
October 5, 2022
Sometimes the fear of blacks cost the communities improvements they would otherwise have welcomed. When the Mayor insisted that a proposed new municipal swimming pool in Dorchester must be open to all races, the residents refused to accept it, claiming that it would become an “inkwell.”
This exhaustively researched tour de force and 1986 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction is a social history of Boston in the 20th century, particularly of the desegregation busing efforts and backlash in the 1970s and 80s. A fascinating snapshot of a broken system, it covers gentrification, white flight, elite privilege, white saviorism, racism, class animosity, political and religious power, corruption, and the limits of the democratic process. Written with a truly epic scope, it’s a dispiriting account of good intentions gone awry.
She knew full well which whites would pay the price for all of this. It wouldn’t be those who worked in the big corporate and law offices downtown, the ones who dined in those Back Bay clubs and lived in the comfortable, all-white suburbs. No, as usual it would be the working-class whites…
The book follows three families:

The McGoffs: a proud working-class Irish Catholic mother of 7 in a project who is opposed to busing in blacks to her kids’ school. She sees benefits for minority neighborhoods as a threat to the inadequate resources for poor white ones and views an attempt to change school dynamics as an assault on her neighborhood’s culture, heaped on top of decades of anti-Irish discrimination and indignities. Resentful of social experimenters and the harm of their impractical notions, she becomes an anti-busing activist.

The Twymons: a poor black churchgoer mother on welfare living in a project whose kids are bused out to white schools in the city. A lifelong believer in integration, she hopes busing will give her children a better education and improve their chances of success in life.

The Divers: an affluent, well-connected WASP couple that moves to a gentrifying neighborhood downtown in earnest pursuit of the dream of integration. Very idealistic (a graduate of Harvard Law, he takes a huge pay cut to work for the mayor, while she works in philanthropy), the do-gooders become disillusioned and eventually move to the suburbs, racked with guilt but accepting that their reforming zeal is out of place in an indifferent and crime-filled city environment.
But that was what liberals were like, she had come to understand; it was easy to be a liberal about other people’s problems. Maybe that was why all the problems were in the city and all the liberals in the suburbs.
These portraits are characterized by enormous empathy and balance, masterfully contextualizing the seeming paradox of a northern city’s struggles with racial tension.

An instance of judicial activism by well-meaning but myopic outsiders, Boston’s busing policy ended up pitting poor and working-class whites and blacks against each other, while upper-class whites remained smug and insulated in the suburbs. This wasn’t a case of busing white suburban kids into Boston and inner city kids to the suburbs—incredibly, white city kids and black city kids were just shuffled around to each others’ crumbling schools. Denied the self-determination and autonomy they demanded, disadvantaged and dysfunctional neighborhoods shouldered all of the burden of the utopian policy.
Alice grew progressively angrier at the power, wealth, and privilege arrayed against her. An unelected judge, an unresponsive senator, and uncaring suburban liberals had joined hands to wrest from her the one thing in the world over which she still exercised some control: her family.
As good as it was, the book’s mind-bogglingly encyclopedic backstories were wearying at times and its portrayal of what an uphill battle racial issues are felt hopeless. I also would have preferred a different black family to be profiled, one more politically empowered and more in step with the movement for claiming their rights (not just one hoping to improve their economic lot), as I think this would have generated more sympathy and understanding for the pro-busing cause and its long-term goals in the face of unmitigated failure in the short term.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,059 reviews52 followers
September 17, 2019
Common Ground by J Anthony Lukas won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1985.

The detail in this lengthy book is mind numbing. Impeccably researched. It is suppose to follow three families in 1970’s Boston. By my count though there are some two dozen characters featured however. The author pulls no punches on his moral assessment of the Irish protagonists in Charlestown. The author lays all the blame of the 1975 busing crisis and school integration at their hands. The anti-busing vitriol and violence matched that of the forced integration that took place in Little Rock, Topeka and Ole Miss decades earlier.

There is also the story of the Mayor’s chief of staff, who is white, who wanted to live in the city and picked an area in South Boston known for its urban blight. By the end of the book he was ready to move out after being frustrated with years of muggings and burglaries.

There is also the history of the Twymons who have a very hard life in the projects including Freddie who is sent to prison for rape. There are many other less detailed histories and recountings of local politicians including the Kennedys as well.

3.5 stars. Exhaustingly detailed history of late 1960’s to 1980 Boston focusing on the racial strife and social issues. There is also a fair amount of history going back to 1900 on aforementioned politicians. For those who are from Boston probably warrants 4 to 5 stars.

Profile Image for Rick.
360 reviews8 followers
July 15, 2013
J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” is the account of civil rights conflict in Boston between the middle 1960s and the middle 1970s, culminating with the forced integration of the Boston school system. The book was published in 1985 … so reading it 28 years after publication and almost 40 years after the events in question, one has some perspective.

Lukas’ book takes three Boston families from different socio-economic conditions and follows them for a decade, up to a frenzy of inner-city strife brought on by forced busing in 1974. The story begins with each family situation around the time President Kennedy was assassinated (a major event for Boston and the country) and segues into their condition when Martin Luther King was assassinated (a galvanizing event for the civil rights movement). The book uses these benchmarks to set the table.

Although the backstory is much too detailed at times, it does provide an abundance of context through which the reader views the actions of each family when forced busing became the remedy to segregated schools. The family units are a Harvard-educated, Brahmin type (Diver) that settles in an inner-city neighborhood to gentrify it; a poor black family stuck in a project in Roxbury (Twymon); and a poor second-generation Irish family (McGoff) in Charlestown.

When the federal district court ruled the Boston school system had unbalanced schools – code for essentially all-black or all-white schools – it also found that the school administration had done nothing to integrate schools. Since the losers would not submit a planned remedy, Judge Garrity of the court did … forced busing to integrate school populations. And this wasn’t busing white suburban kids into Boston and the inner city kids to the suburbs – it was the intentional busing of white city kids to black city schools and the reverse. So forced busing impacted lower class blacks and whites, while upper class whites remained insulated in the suburbs.

The story is comprehensive … discussing minutia such as the encouragement of Catholic hierarchy (Cardinals Cushing and Medeiros) and the influence of Boston’s newspapers (the Herald and the Globe). The story is also nuanced, reflecting on the differences between blacks born and reared in the north compared to those that came up from Mississippi and the deep South. Some think Judge Garrity’s ruling was judicial activism and overreaching.

Desegregating schools had become complicated since Brown v Board of Education in 1954 ruled on separate facilities not on unbalanced facilities. It seemed easier to impose sanctions and send federal troops into the south, but now the courts were forcing integration in the northern cities and it was different … rather than blacks rioting because of poor conditions, Boston’s experience was whites rioting because they were being forced to bus their kids to black schools. This book touches on many of the facets of the problem.

The question remains … did Judge Garrity’s ruling induce “white flight” to the suburbs of Boston or did his work forge lasting change in Beantown? Tough question to answer since busing has pretty much been roundly criticized as a knee-jerk reaction to segregation and not the best answer. But then we have to ask what is? This book won’t answer that question, but it will show you what Boston went through.
Profile Image for Sophie.
306 reviews
December 6, 2014
Pretty extraordinary book. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to intimately know the city of Boston or see a warts-and-all look at Northern race relations post-Civil Rights. I often say a book was incredibly well-researched, but this was a true tour de force, meticulously covering Boston history, the long and tangled history of various ethnic groups and these three specific clans, and the social forces, local politics, and personalities that shaped the climate in 1970's Boston and led to the catastrophic desegregation by forced busing. It was shocking and sobering to see how vicious the racism and racial violence was here, just 40 years ago...busing was a massive failure leading to white flight and racial tension as bad as many parts of the 1960's South. Lukas closely follows three families through the busing crisis: the impoverished black Twymons, the working class Irish McGoffs, and the liberal Yankee Divers. But he also looks at the mayor, the clergy, the school board, the newspapermen, and the waves of immigration and gentrification--everything that makes Boston what it was and is. The academic detail got a little oppressive by the end of 650 pages, which is why I docked it a star, but it ended on a powerful note. The Divers' inability to reconcile their liberal ideals with their own self-interest rang really true to me, especially because I've been thinking a lot lately about this idea that "a conservative is a liberal who got mugged," or just the fact that almost everybody accepts the creature comforts they are lucky enough to have access to, regardless of what that means for the rest of the world. It was a perfect time in my life to read this book, as it raised these issues I am primed to think about right now, like liberal politics and the ways it can spin off in unexpectedly harmful directions, or the knottiness and complexity of local government, or the complicated interactions of racism and classism in the North.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
845 reviews830 followers
July 7, 2021
J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground depicts Boston's tumultuous 1970s, where school busing and court-mandated segregation tore the city apart. Veteran reporter Lukas (Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years) views the balance of the story through three families caught in the chaos: the Divers, a well-connected Brahmin family whose son works for Mayor Kevin White, overseeing the implementation of said plans and growing disillusioned in the process; the McGoffs, working class Irish Bostonians who deeply resent being forced into a social experiment; and the Twynnons, a Black family from the South End who battle hostility from neighbors and classmates along with their son's descent into crime. The book captures events both large-scale and intimate, laying bear the racial tensions that underlie every facet of society: the book is littered with brawls, muggings, protests, riots and a sexual assault that makes one's skin crawl. Using his subjects as a prism, Lukas expertly showcases the class and ethnic tensions raging within Boston: the tribal loyalty of Charlestown and Southie whites to their neighborhoods, the resentment of the working-class Irish for the "lace curtain" Irish and progressive Brahmins, the African American conflict between integration and Black Power, the white progressives whose support for integration erodes through experience. In between are sketches of political and cultural leaders from the opportunistic Mayor White to anti-busing protester Louise Day Hicks, all of whom jostling for position and benefit amidst the turmoil. Lukas offers strands of hope - students bond through sports, social events and rap sessions organized by idealistic teachers - that the two races can coexist, but he makes clear that neither good will nor social engineering can completely eradicate either personal racism or its root causes. An unflinching book, rich and compelling in its portraiture of the effects of racism and a city's imperfect attempts to overcome it.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
461 reviews1 follower
February 3, 2009
An exhaustive but fair examination of forced busing in Boston in 1973. The City of Boston's school commitee failed to follow mandated Federal government rules for desegregation and lost control of the city's schools. The management of the school system became subject to judicial receivership. Judge Garrity enforced the rule with busing and the results were on the national news nightly. Vitriol and egg throwing, it was an ugly time indeed.
Having just begun college I would find myself commuting to BC behind the yellow Boston school buses and the accompanying police details. (cars and motorcycles, fully armed) The first graders on the bus were justifiably terrified. Plus we had a gas shortage and high interest rates so everyone was on edge.
It was a complicated problem and one that still exists in urban school districts everywhere. Was it race? It was. Was it socio-economic? It was. Poor white kids being bused into poor black neighborhoods and vice versa. No one was happy about little kids being bused from their neighborhoods. Everyone was blamed. The result, a mass exodus of whites into parochial schools and the lines of race and class warfare became further entrenched.
It didn't work. Busing was not the answer.

Profile Image for Samarth Gupta.
144 reviews20 followers
April 16, 2019
Great book about Boston busing crisis, housing, race, education, politics, etc etc

“What good is a great private college unless it serves a great national purpose?"

"Colin and David could no longer accept that traditional notion, but neither could they endorse the radicals’ concept of the law as a hammer to smash the barricades of vested interest. Slowly, they came to view it as a lever with which to pry up the mossy rocks of privilege, bringing air and light to the teeming precincts beneath."

“The committee found that half of the city’s black students—some 10,400—attended twenty-eight schools which were at least 80 percent black. Sixteen schools in the heart of the black community were over 96 percent black. “Racial imbalance,” the committee concluded, “represents a serious conflict with the American creed of equal opportunity. ”

“The constituency for change was larger than that. In June, Governor John Volpe introduced a bill empowering the State Board of Education to withhold state funds from any local school system that had not adopted an acceptable plan for eliminating imbalance. Although Boston’s representatives howled with rage, the suburban and rural majority found the bill unobjectionable. (Its principal backers were Father Robert Drinan, a Newton resident, then dean of the Boston College Law School; Beryl Cohen, a Brookline legislator; and the Yankee lieutenant governor, Elliot Richardson.) For by defining imbalance as more than 50 percent black, the state committee had taken the onus off all but three of Massachusetts’ largest cities—Boston, Springfield, and Cambridge. There were simply no other communities with enough blacks to qualify. The committee conveniently ignored the question of whether 100 percent white schools in Brookline, Newton, Wellesley, and other suburbs within a short bus ride of the Roxbury ghetto were also imbalanced.
This, of course, was the formula for any successful civil rights legislation. The national Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, 1964, and 1965 had all been imposed by Northern and Western majorities on Southern communities. Veteran lobbyists had long since deduced the applicable maxim: the probability of support for such legislation is inversely related to the proximity of its potential application.”

“The School Committee continued to insist that such racial separation was due entirely to residential segregation, combined with the tradition of “the neighborhood school.” In fact, Boston had long since abandoned the neighborhood as an organizing principle for attendance at the middle and high school levels. Students shuttled around the city, following elaborate “feeder patterns.” Even at the elementary level, where children generally attended schools close to home, they frequently had a choice of two or more schools and often didn’t attend the nearest. As the School Committee fought the Racial Imbalance Act, it manipulated this Byzantine system in such a way as to keep blacks and whites separate. The few new schools or annexes built during this period were clearly located so as to be either heavily white or heavily black. Graduates of predominantly white lower schools were given preference at white high schools; students from heavily black schools were guaranteed seats at heavily black high schools. Even the “open enrollment” program, under which students could transfer to schools with vacant seats, aggravated segregation by permitting whites to escape predominantly black schools.”

“Meanwhile, the Town watched yet another of its traditional employment sources dry up. Since the turn of the century, when the Irish seized control of Boston’s City Hall, they had cornered a disproportionate share of municipal jobs, notably in the Police, Fire, and Public Works departments; nearly every Charlestown family had someone serving in at least one of those bailiwicks. But through the sixties and early seventies a series of legal challenges shook such ethnic monopolies. In 1971, U.S. District Judge Charles Wyzanski ruled in the first of those suits, holding that entrance exams for Boston’s Police Department gave whites a “discriminatory advantage,” and ordered the department to correct such practices and hire fifty-three minority applicants who had failed the last exam. Over the next few years, other federal judges issued similar orders to Boston’s Fire and Public Works departments. Soon all three services launched “affirmative action” programs designed to give preference to qualified black and Hispanic applicants. The numbers involved were comparatively small, but Charlestown’s Irish fervently believed that jobs which had once been theirs by birthright would now go to dark-skinned interlopers across the city.”

“The South End had been called “a nursery of democracy,” because, in succession, Yankees, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Lebanese, Chinese, Russian and German Jews, blacks, and Hispanics had learned there the ways of urban America.”

“Like many 221 (d) 3 projects across the country, Methunion had been in financial trouble long before it accepted its first tenant, for its rents had been determined less on economic than on political grounds. Under heavy pressure from South End community groups, the Mayor and the BRA desperately needed housing which would be perceived as replacements for the demolished units. In setting rents for these projects, HUD had shown little concern for the project’s financial viability. And Gil Caldwell had his own agenda: the church’s search for credibility with inner-city blacks. Eager to build, Union had allowed itself to underestimate Methunion’s operating costs to ensure that the FHA would approve its mortgage application. And, of course, the FHA—which shared HUD’s emphasis on housing production—could be counted on not to scrutinize the figures too closely. For there was a tacit understanding among all parties that the first priority was to get the buildings up and occupied; then, if expenses outran revenues, an appeal could be made to the nation’s conscience, and the federal government would presumably ride to the rescue, as it had so often in the sixties.”

“Tocqueville recognized that Americans had not one but two political systems: “the one fulfilling the ordinary duties and responding to the daily and infinite calls of a community; the other circumscribed within certain limits and exercising an exceptional authority over the general interests of the country.” For seventy years this delicate balance prevailed, reassuring Americans that the demands of nationalism were compatible with the intimacies of community.”

“But there was more to it than that. Traditional liberals, he decided, had exaggerated the importance of ideas. Four years earlier, Colin himself had thought that all City Hall needed was bright, innovative, creative ideas. Now he felt that the most important job in government was implementing ideas. Of course, if issues abstracted from management made no sense, then neither did management abstracted from issues. But there were plenty of people around just bursting with ideas, and not that many who could make them work.”

“In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get if you don’t get too high; in the North, the white man doesn’t care how high you get if you don’t get too close. ”

“Racial imbalance in Boston’s schools, they contended, was neither fortuitous nor innocent; it had been reinforced and maintained over the years by a whole host of techniques devised by the Boston School Committee: optional attendance zones, manipulated district lines, differential grade structures, open enrollment, feeder patterns, site selection policies, portable classrooms, and various pupil assignment practices.”

“But that was what liberals were like, she had come to understand; it was easy to be a liberal about other people’s problems. Maybe that was why all the problems were in the city and all the liberals in the suburbs.”

"Though wages were lower there than in the mid-Atlantic cities, there was something about Boston that drew Southern Negroes. It was from Boston that the abolitionists had issued their calls for a holy war against slavery. It was there that many blacks fled in the underground railway, relying on Bostonians to forward them to Canada. It was to Boston that David Walker, a North Carolina Negro, fled in 1825, and there that he issued his fiery pamphlet Walker’s Appeal (“Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties!”), which was widely distributed in Georgia.
The image of Boston as a sanctuary was encouraged by black writers who, over the years, described it as “a city of refuge, a place of light, life, and liberty,” the one place in America “where the black man is given equal justice,” and even, euphorically, “the Paradise of the Negro.”

"In comparison with the Southern colonies, there were never many slaves in Massachusetts, partly because the harsh climate and stony soil did not permit a plantation agriculture requiring numerous field hands. Yet, by the eve of the Revolution, 5,249 Negroes, most of them slaves, were counted in the colony...Still, Massachusetts’ brand of slavery was distinctive, probably more benign than in any other colony. Following the Hebraic tradition passed down through the Old Testament, the Puritans regarded slaves as persons divinely committed to their stewardship. Usually referred to as “servants” rather than slaves, they were often treated as members of the family in which they lived."

"Since salvation required a knowledge of the Bible, many masters even taught their slaves to read and write. The legal status of slaves in New England was somewhere between that of Southern plantation slaves and that of indentured servants. They could acquire, hold, and transfer property; they were entitled to a trial by jury. Most important, they could sue whites and could carry their suits on appeal to the highest courts in the colony."

"By the mid-eighteenth century, slaves were taking advantage of that right, bringing civil suits for their freedom, arguing that slavery was “contrary to ye laws of Nature.” Such entreaties eventually reached the Puritan conscience. Like Virginians, many Massachusetts citizens perceived the contradictions between their own struggle against Britain and their enslavement of others. Abigail Adams, in a letter to her husband, John, wrote: “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”"

"Once the colonies won their independence, the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention adopted a Declaration of Rights, holding that “all men are born free and equal.” But slavery persisted. Not until 1783 did the state’s chief justice declare it unconstitutional."

"In 1849, a black parent, Benjamin Roberts, brought suit against the city in the name of his daughter Sarah, seeking reintegration of the schools. Arguing Roberts’ case before the Supreme Judicial Court, Charles Sumner said: “[A] school, exclusively devoted to one class, must differ essentially, in its spirit and character, from the public school known to the law, where all classes meet together in equality. It is a mockery to call it an equivalent.” But Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw disagreed, ruling that the segregated schools did not deny Negroes equal protection of the law.
Justice Shaw’s ruling—the “separate-but-equal doctrine”—was to have a profound effect on the nation’s history. The Roberts case was the chief precedent cited by the Supreme Court when it enshrined that doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and, thus, the genesis of the legal principle which was to govern the country’s race relations until 1954."

In 1855, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill prohibiting segregated schools

"To Boston-born blacks, the lesson was clear: the newcomers—soon dubbed “Homies,” from “down home”—were dragging them under, destroying their “special relationship” with whites."

"This chronic fragmentation enfeebled the community, but there were other sources of weakness. The vaunted “special relationship” between the races—though short-lived and much exaggerated—seduced Negroes from the development of strong black institutions which might have created a substantial middle class (for years, Boston’s largest black business was Chisolm’s Funeral Home). Then there was the community’s size: throughout the nineteenth century blacks never exceeded 2 percent of the city, and even by 1970 they had reached only 16.3 percent, compared with Washington’s 71 percent or Detroit’s 43 percent. Boston blacks lacked the critical mass necessary for effective political or social action. This became particularly important in 1949, when the City Charter was amended to replace ward-based elections with an at-large system. With the black community unable to muster enough votes citywide, only one Negro—Tom Atkins—was elected to the City Council over the next quarter century. Finally, the community had no historic center to provide a sense of continuity and cohesion. Boston Negroes have always lived in segregated space, but that space has shifted steadily from north to south. There has never been a place where Boston’s blacks could say with certainty, “This is what we are, this is where we make our stand.”"

"Four years with Kevin White and two with Frank Sargent had taught him that ideas alone were virtually useless, that government couldn’t define people’s needs for them, that “solutions” worked only if they were perceived as such by a substantial constituency and implemented by skilled managers. Moreover, unless such programs were shrewdly calculated, they were often ineffective, even counterproductive, producing consequences quite opposite from those the reformers had intended."
Profile Image for Jaclyn.
340 reviews8 followers
November 14, 2015
Lukas is up there with Caro in terms of ability to write spellbinding nonfiction. Having moved to Boston not 10 months ago—happening upon Common Ground through a coworker-turned-immediate-friend—Lukas shed uncomfortably clear light on my streets, my neighborhood, my bus routes. And it served its purpose. Why do we read nonfiction? Why do we study history? In vain, we think we can 'learn' and not make the same mistakes 'they' made. But 'they' are us, and I'll be damned if we aren't still engaging in the same foolishness. Go get this book from your library and read it.
58 reviews3 followers
February 24, 2019
Having lived through busing as a child in Boston, Charlestown and then Newton, this book had a profound impact on me. It helped me to understand the clash between well meaning policies largely crafted by people whose children were not subject to forced busing and the families and communities whose lives were disrupted. As we were also a pro busing family in a town that was generally not, the book helped me to understand the response to us which was at times bordering on violent. Definitely worth reviewing in light of the continued presence of racism in the decades that followed.
August 13, 2013
The single greatest work of reported nonfiction I've ever read. A massive work of empathy. Lukas follows three families, one old money and WASPy, one working class Irish, one poor and black, as they live through the busing years in Boston. Anyone who wants to understand the reality of American cities needs to read this book. It's probably the one book that inspired me to be a writer -- one who tries to step inside others' shoes.
Profile Image for Candelaria Silva.
Author 4 books3 followers
January 26, 2016
The book is decent for an account that leaves out the words of the black parents, activists and educators who fought to get equitable education for Black children in Boston for decades. For the words of the people it actually happened to, read Chain of Change by Mel King and Black Education in Boston by Ruth Batson (available from the archives of Roxbury Community College and Northeastern University).
Profile Image for Campbell.
15 reviews3 followers
January 5, 2017
An interesting exploration of the clashing of principles, ideals and reality in urban America - vividly threaded together by the personal struggles of the three families. Common Ground brings together problems of race, economics and community self-determination, while not taking particular sides, nor sounding preachy and remaining accessible. In this age of polarisation, a worthy read.
Profile Image for Ashley.
33 reviews26 followers
March 16, 2016
These were a series of fantastically detailed portrayals of white Bostonians during desegregation. It utterly failed to incorporate the voices of black Bostonians.
Profile Image for Tina Humphrey Boogren.
Author 3 books15 followers
July 2, 2016
This one's a doozy... Extremely well written and detailed; I'm in awe of the research done for this book--no wonder it won so many awards!
16 reviews
July 25, 2019
Common Ground opens with the cataclysm of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April 1968. It ends at Southview Cemetery in Atlanta, where King's body was interred, where Joan Diver's "throat throbbed with the loss of so many dreams buried there in the red Georgia clay" (647).

The book recounts the effects of the Boston busing "crisis" upon the lives of its main three subjects and their families. We witness their personal hopes and the social promise of desegregation crash against the shores of intractable racial animus, economic inequality, and emotional, political, and social exhaustion. Alice McGoff, Irish-Catholic, an inveterate Townie, mother to seven children, finds herself caught up in the racist throes of the anti-busing movement, transformed from a passive observer into an active participant. Rachel Twymon, a devout black churchgoer and patron of the arts, becomes caught in a bitter feud with her sister and watches her two daughters run away from home and one of her sons be incarcerated. Colin Diver, a Harvard Law School graduate, Yankee, and striving liberal, forsakes his belief in racial and economic justice and abandons the South End neighborhood where he lives with his wife.

Other characters, who sit at the heart of power, betray their ideals, too. Kevin White, the young, progressive mayor of Boston, sacrifices his support for integration on the altar of political expediency when confronted with the anger of his white constituents. The Archbishop of Boston Humberto Medeiros approaches the subject of busing gingerly, fearing the anger of the church’s Irish base. Tom Winship, the editor of the Boston Globe, makes “frantic efforts to offend no one,” somehow managing “to offend everyone” (507).

The thoughts and actions of the book's protagonists are not actually as reducible as I have described. Many of the book's subjects are intensely self-aware and fully recognize the compromises they pursue to bridge the demands of their other-directed ideals with their own calculating self-interest. J. Anthony Lukas deftly shades the complicated reality of his subjects. He admitted in an interview that writing the book took him from “the party of simplicity to the party of complexity.”

Class is one such complicating factor. When Colin and Joan Diver move to the South End in the summer of 1970, they are cognizant of the gentrifying effects of their move. In spite of this, they seek to strengthen the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their new community. Among their efforts is their support of the Bancroft School, an experimental and racially integrated school with an unstructured curriculum. When they learn that their son, along with others, will be sent to a school in Lower Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood, they marshal the school community to block the planned busing. Within a year, the Bancroft, “[d]esigned as the cornerstone of the New South End… had become an object of contention splitting the community down the middle. Parents like the Divers were tugged first by self-interest, then by their vision of a model urban school, their motives so mixed they couldn’t disentangle them” (338). Ultimately, their self-interest prevails as they depart the South End for the suburbs in 1976. In a resolution that displays the economic and social forces of gentrification, we learn in the epilogue that the Bancroft School has been converted to luxury condominiums.

The positive effects of busing on minority communities, especially in the southern United States, were substantial and lasting. As a recent essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones asserts, busing "transformed the South from apartheid to the place where black children are now the most likely to sit in classrooms with white children. It led to increased resources being spent on black and low-income children... We now know that school desegregation significantly reduced the test-score gap between black and white children—cutting it in half for some black age groups without harming white children. No other reform has reduced the gap on this scale."

These outcomes have been obscured by the narrative of failure that surrounds busing. Busing achieved, in part, what it was intended to achieve: integration and some semblance of equality. Its failure to endure was the product of white resistance, both in statehouses and in public squares, economic inequalities that enabled the rich to insulate themselves from its effects, and a lack of true racial reconciliation. Hannah-Jones concludes that "Busing did not fail. We did."

History doesn't follow a linear path towards progress, it doesn't bequeath the earth to the meek, it doesn't arc towards justice. It is telling that Common Ground does not, in fact, end at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.'s grave, but in the yard of Colin and Joan Diver's suburban home in Newton, where they have beat their retreat from the South End, where their white picket fence rears "its ivory spine against the world" (651), where their ambitions have shifted away from enacting racial and economic justice and, instead, towards getting more of what's theirs.
346 reviews
Want to read
July 17, 2019
From "It Was Never About Busing: Court-ordered desegregation worked. But white parents wouldn't accept it." by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times, Sunday Review, July 14, 2019. Further, while it is true that close-by schools may be convenient, white Americans’ veneration of neighborhood schools has never outweighed their desire to maintain racially homogeneous environments for their children. Few remember that Oliver Brown, a petitioner in Brown v. Board of Education, sued for the right of his daughter, Linda, to attend her neighborhood school. Kansas’ state law allowed school systems to segregate at the behest of white parents, and so the Topeka school board bused Linda and other black children past white schools to preserve segregation. Across the South and in parts of the North, black children were regularly bused long distances across district and county lines, because as late as the 1950s, some local governments valued the education of black children so little and segregation so much that they did not offer a single high school that black students could attend.

In other communities, school buses were considered a prized luxury reserved for white children. During my reporting, I have heard many stories of black children walking long distances to their assigned schools and being covered in dust by the passing big yellow buses — paid for with the tax dollars of black parents as well — that were shuttling white children to their white schools. The school bus, treasured when it was serving as a tool of segregation, became reviled only when it transformed into a tool of integration. As the federal judge who ordered busing for desegregation in the landmark case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court said, according to the 1978 book “Nothing Could Be Finer”: “Heck, I was bused as a child in Robeson County. Everybody who attends school in North Carolina has been bused. Busing isn’t the question, whatever folks say. It’s desegregation.”
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