Archival Finds: US Marshals in Boston

This is the second post in my series on standout documents I encountered during my internship at the National Archives. The first post can be found here.


Equipment List from U.S. Marshals Deployment in Boston, 1976

National Archives, RG 527

In the fall of 1976, U.S. marshals deployed to Boston to defend school desegregation. The city was in the second year of its so-called “busing crisis,” which began when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that Boston must undo the racial discrimination built into its school system. From the onset, desegregation sparked mass protests and mob violence. White parents pulled their children from schools and took to the streets, paralleling Little Rock and other southern integration conflicts from preceding decades. As in those cases, federal agents worked to protect students attending integrated schools and to keep opposition from transcending the limits of legal protest.

This note is a straightforward scrap from that effort. Perhaps jotted out by a supervisor, it lists the equipment that every marshal vehicle should be loaded with before hitting Boston’s streets. That includes helmets, cameras, masks, maps, and billy clubs. Lower down, the note singles out “SOG,” the Marshal Service’s highly-trained Special Operations Group. The note specifies that each SOG officer should specifically receive a helmet, mask, and club, though how this differs from the checklist above is not clear.

What first struck me about the note is how improvised and unaffected it is. Most documents in this collection, and in similar Archives’ holdings, are formal, polished statements of federal policy. They are typed and bear the imprimatur of being an official document. This note though, scribbled on wide-ruled paper, does not have that. It is not self-evidently significant, and it is far from an obvious choice for preservation, And yet, there is some striking depth to it.

The note does not offer an overt expression of desegregation policy, but it instead translates that abstract policy into material form. At its core, the note lists the physical tools chosen to carry out the will of American government. The helmets and clubs it prescribes are endowed with federal authority, and considering what helmets and clubs are used for, they tangibly convey the federal government’s willingness to use force to protect integration. Cameras (with all the film and flash gadgetry they required in the 1970s) served a similar function, documenting law-breaking so that the criminal justice system could respond forcefully as well.

I’ve seen photos of integration clashes in Boston and elsewhere, but the material perspective of this note helped me to appreciate the significance of federal action in a new way. In Boston, the federal government deployed one of its most basic state powers–a monopoly on the legitimate use of force–to work toward a racially integrated society. This force was not exercised abstractly, but personally and directly, with armed men using clubs to physically threaten and maybe batter violent opposition.

When I considered the Boston “crisis” from that angle, I was surprised with how foreign it all seemed. The federal government has never used that sort of physical force to fight for racial progress in my lifetime, even as school segregation in particular has re-entrenched. While the kind of popular reaction that demands federal force has become less common, that is only because the federal government has mostly given up on the sort of dramatic civil rights action that sparks racist violence. In fact, this past summer we experienced the exact opposite, as local and federal law enforcement embraced violent responses to peaceful social justice protests. The shift is remarkable, and yet we hardly seem to recognize it as such.

This note and the clashes in Boston came at the end of a brief period when the federal government was willing to physically demand a more equitable society. These were of course turbulent and divisive years, but they achieved meaningful progress at a speed and depth we have never since approached. As we look to address the fundamental racial wounds this year has highlighted, it is worth remembering what American government can achieve when it commits some of its overwhelming might toward anti-racist action.

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