Rickie Thompson and his friends were surprised by the mob as they cut through the Harvard Medical Complex from Brigham Circle to Louis Pasteur Avenue on their way to Boston English High School. The three black youths, earnest sophomores in the college engineering track of the 1,100-student, all-male high school, had expected a typical day. Rickie had even stayed up past eleven finishing geometry homework that now lay, apparently useless, in his briefcase. To be sure, there had been rumors of a walkout the day before-something to do with the seniors who had been suspended for wearing dashikis. But Rickie had not taken that very seriously. Somewhere between track practice, going over his music for Glee Club, studying for an English exam, and pondering the incongruity of angles A and B, he'd even forgotten the rumors.
The young men moved closer to the crowd, blending into a sea of other students with close-cropped hair, white shirts, and ties. But there were splashes of color as well-some of the seniors sported their dashikis. And there were more black faces than could be accounted for among the English High community, where black students were in a minority and where there were only two black faculty members. Members of the Roxbury community had come to support the students. One of them was yelling at Headmaster Joseph Malone through a megaphone. Others were moving forward to speak as police stood by and nervously watched the crowd.
Rickie and his classmates had limited options. Even before the school was officially closed for the day, no one would have been foolish enough to push through the crowd. They could go home and be thankful for the good luck of a day off from school, but things were just getting interesting. The headmaster was yelling back at the crowd now, and the cops were looking more agitated. The police had grabbed Glen Grayson, one of the suspended students, and Glen was angrily pulling himself away from them. It looked as though there might be trouble, but Rickie figured that he could watch out for himself. Street-corner demonstrations, planned and spontaneous, had become a regular feature, almost a pastime, in his community in recent years. The young men chose to stay.
Rickie's choice that day was his first conscious step toward a commitment to student activism-a commitment that would be the central focus of his last year of high school. The dashiki protests were an early and key chapter in an unprecedented period of student protest in Boston's public schools. By Rickie's senior year, black student groups at English and other Boston high schools had taken a series of actions that culminated in a city-wide strike that shut down the downtown high schools for much of the winter and spring of 1971.
Discerning whether these actions constituted a distinct black student political movement is the primary purpose of this essay. First, I will present, as briefly as possible, the theoretical framework from which I evaluate the political nature of both the students' individual behavior and that of the associations they formed. This will be followed by a narrative of the key events of black student activism from 1968 to 1971 with a particular focus on English High School, including the backdrop of community protests and demographic change that preceded the swell of student activism. Finally, in terms of the political nature of the student's activities, I will contrast my interpretations of those events with those of contemporary school officials.
I would argue that Glen Grayson in 1968 and Rickie Thompson by 1971 were conscious participants in a coherent political movement to transform the treatment of black students. They and their colleagues brought the "fire to the door" of the Boston Public Schools, illuminating the patterns and effects of racism and proposing concrete changes. If their specific goals, like those of the larger black community in regards to education, were not adopted, the decision-making process of the Boston school system was changed: the factor of racial equity can no longer be ignored. The fact that their demand for student participation in decision-making did not have a similar impact reflects not only the overall waning of student power movements, but the inherent limitations of schools as arenas of empowerment.
Tierney, Michael T., "Fire at the Door: The Black Student Union Movement at Boston English High School, 1968-1971" (1987). William Monroe Trotter Institute Publications. 39.