The South Boston “code of silence” is a practice that many people in the metro-Boston area and even around the country are familiar with, but there are few that have actually experienced it. Even fewer have broken it.
On Tuesday afternoon in the Ecumenical Center, author Michael Patrick MacDonald spoke about his books “All Souls: A Family Story From Southie,” which deals with race and class as experienced in Boston and “Easter Rising: An Irish American Coming Up from Under,” which chronicles his teenage years and later reconciliation with his neighborhood.
He painstakingly described the plight and struggle of growing up in an oppressed neighborhood under siege by the notorious gangster James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger.
MacDonald said that one of the most important moments of his life was experiencing firsthand the violent riots on the streets of South Boston during the city’s busing desegregation. This nationally scrutinized campaign was one of the implementations of the Boston School District’s 1965 Racial Imbalance Act. Whether or not busing was effective or even justified is still a subject of much debate.
Unfortunately, according to MacDonald, the school district was focused on race, not neighborhood economics. He also claims that it may have halted progressive social justice movements started in the 1960s and 1970s. He described it as “stupid” and “insidious.”
MacDonald said busing was “an opportunity to distract” the people of South Boston from the atrocities that were happening in their neighborhood and were something to rally around. He chillingly described the influence on children as an “us against them mentality.”
This racial tension caused South Boston to become a white fortress, stoked by the promises made by Whitey, whose brother, Billy Bulger, was President of the Massachusetts Senate at the time.
“All of our leaders at the time had to be knowing what was going on, especially Billy Bulger,” said MacDonald.
The violence and drug use only worsened as the years wore on, compiled with the extreme poverty rate.
“[South Boston] held the highest concentration of white poverty in America,” MacDonald explained. “They were clinging to hopes that the ‘white thing’ would work out.”
One night, while preparing for a performance at a local pub, a stray bullet from outside their apartment hit MacDonald’s mother.
“The neighborhood looked darker,” he described in hindsight, “I saw very few people get out and many people die.”
Included in those deaths are four of his ten siblings, who he honored years later, along with all other victims of the drug use and violence in South Boston, with a candlelight vigil on All Souls Day.
“It’s all about transforming that trauma into something useful,” said MacDonald.
The families of victims lined up out the door and around the building, “waiting to just say the names of their children,” MacDonald explained.
Despite the violence and squalor he experienced, he still considers Southie his home.
“It was not just about being able to get out,” he said, “but being able to come back home.”