By Maxwell Carter
Anyone who lived through the 1970s in Boston, or really anywhere in the United States, will recall the racist and violent opposition in the city to school desegregation. Twenty years after the Little Rock Nine were escorted to school in Arizona by the national guard, Black students in Boston were being pelted by bricks and rocks on their morning commute. The East Boston Community News, a newspaper established just a couple of years before desegregation efforts were mandated in the city, decided to take a stand.
“Our view was that you needed to obey the desegregation order. That was our editorial position,” former Co-editor Joe Conason said. “Certainly that any racist opposition to it was to be deplored and pushed back against, which led to a lot of friction between us and the local chapter of the Restore Our Alienated Rights organization, which was the main anti-busing group in the city of Boston.”
The East Boston Community News was founded in 1970 and catalyzed a cultural shift in their neighborhood during that defining period in Boston’s history. Their reporting filled a void in the often-overlooked East Boston community and remains an example of the role of local journalism in such virulent moments.
“We were part of a change in the early 1970s where the progressive elements in the community were able to find their voice and the newspaper became an outlet,” said Mossik Hacobian, co-founder of the Community News. “Some of the columnists were middle-aged and older women who were writing about their neighborhood. You know, it’s not like they were helicoptered in from someplace else. Very much community based, rooted in a neighborhood,” he said. “We were not just an activist, progressive paper, we were basically trying to report the truth.”
The paper was started by young conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War who set out to bring attention to major developments affecting the local community, like a planned airport expansion that would displace hundreds and destroy public spaces. They reported aggressively and held fast to journalistic ethics, avoiding the pitfalls of activist journalism and earning a reputation in the community as tough, but fair. Furthermore, their journalism proved effective.
“I’m thinking back to 1974 and how the Community News was the only news vehicle bringing out the true implications of how the desegregation orders were going to affect the East Boston schools,” former member of the state board of education Evelyn Morash wrote in a 2010 remembrance of the Community News, which shuttered in 1989. “While people were afraid of what was going to happen to their kids because of all the lies and fear-mongering that was being spread, the Community News printed the truth.”
This was no small feat. Boston was one of the last major U.S. cities to address racial segregation in their school system and Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s 1974 order for the city to integrate their schools was met with violent, organized resistance. “Fairness/integration was a radical position in East Boston in those days,” former Community News staffer Phil Giffee wrote last year in an obituary for Morash.
But the small newspaper operation not took the issue head on. In the years leading up to Garrity’s order, East Boston found itself home to one of the most ardent opposition groups, Restore Our Alienated Rights. ROAR’s East Boston representative was Evelyn “Trixie” Palladino.
“Elvira does the unexpected. She’s a second generation American who is fighting her government, and she finds it hard because she loves America as it is,” the late Sue Petz wrote in her July, 1973 exposé of the anti-busing activist.
Despite a slightly adversarial relationship, they featured profiles and interviews with Palladino alongside reports on the busing issue to provide readers with an understanding of the facts as well as the players in their community on every side of the issue.
“I think one way we survived covering controversial issues is we kept our cool,” Peter Werwath, one of the or early editors at the Community News, said. “I think it’s very tempting for a neighborhood paper to say, ‘go to the barricades,’ and put up slogans, and so forth. We didn’t do that.”
Their balanced approach and strict journalistic ethics were not enough to avoid the broad brush of the opposition, however. Reporters received threats. The paper was nicknamed the “East Boston Communist News” and their building was vandalized with red paint. The damage was minimal, but it was clear they had struck a nerve, according to staff who worked at the paper at the time. A few years into the heat of the busing crisis, Someone firebombed their offices for their coverage of the issue. Still, they persisted.
“I was covering the racist reaction to busing and writing a lot about ROAR, not just in Eastie but also in Southie, in other parts of the city, and then relationships with City Hall and things like that,” Conason said of his work for both the Community News and The Real Paper. “And I was threatened, my life was threatened. I was told not to go anywhere near Maverick square or I would be killed,” he said. “It wasn’t the easiest time to do journalism in that environment. And I think, you know, the whole city was feeling a lot of that.”
Forty years since closing down operations the almost completely volunteer staff and hyperlocal audience of the Community News remember their efforts proudly and the entire catalogue has been archived at Northeastern University. As the state of journalism becomes increasingly perilous and anti-racist uprisings grip the nation again this year, remembering this relatively short-lived, but monumental effort, reveals why local news is so important.
“People felt like they needed a voice against passports, some of the other larger interest and that’s why the paper was started,” said Philip Giffee, a longtime reporter for the paper. “Whatever people’s persuasion were, we were just interested in fairness, equity, equality for everybody who lived in the neighborhood,” he said.
Correction: An error from a previous version of this report, which stated the East Boston Community News shut down in 1980, has been corrected.