, Salem, MA


August 29, 2013

Column: Marblehead, METCO and the March on Washington

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, I was living inside a protective bubble, comfortably insulated from the racial tensions simmering in America’s cities and throughout the South.

At the time, I was a naïve 9-year-old kid in Marblehead, a solidly middle-class white bedroom suburb north of Boston. My quaint seaside hometown, which proudly calls itself “the birthplace of the American Navy,” is known for its picturesque harbor dotted with sailboats and lobster buoys — not for its racial diversity.

Back home in the 1960s, racial equality wasn’t front and center on everyone’s mind. But that’s not to say we never talked about racial justice. I recall going to my synagogue as a kid to hear a charismatic young civil rights activist, Julian Bond, speak about Black-Jewish relations.

As a budding news junkie, I followed the protests and emerging legislation. (The 1963 March on Washington is credited with leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.) I was too young to do anything about the issue at the time, but I became acutely aware that Marblehead and the surrounding towns were by no measure integrated.

By 1967, however, something fundamental had shifted. Not only was the parlance changing — “black” and “Afro-American” were finally replacing “Negro” — but black kids were suddenly attending our schools. Marblehead was one of the first communities in the country to participate in the METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) program.

METCO was created as a temporary remedy for the poor conditions of Boston’s then-segregated inner-city schools. What started as a program to send 220 black students to seven suburban communities has grown to be the country’s longest-running voluntary school-desegregation effort. Today, it buses some 3,300 African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American students from Boston and Springfield to schools in more than 30 suburbs, including Marblehead.

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