Dr. Charles Willie
Formation of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council

Interviewed April 27, 1989

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Dr. Charles WillieThrough the METCO program, Concord received students from Boston. It was a program designed to transport Boston black students to suburban schools in which the racial ratio was quite low. All told, about 3,000 students a year were transported to suburban communities in the Boston Metropolitan area. The METCO program has been in existence for more than two decades and has been very successful. The students who have participated in it have demonstrated a considerable amount of endurance and persistence. Some arise as early as 5:30 to catch buses to come to various suburban communities.

Concord had METCO students at the elementary and high school levels. At Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, there was a fight between a METCO student - a black student, and a white student - a Concord resident, and that fight resulted in a considerable amount of concern and consternation. Students poured out of the building and jeered black students, and it was an unhappy, unpleasant, and unfriendly sight. I was a resident of Concord at that time. My family and I moved to the Concord area in 1974, and our three children were members of the student bodies

Always I have been oriented toward involvement in local community affairs. As a sociology teacher I have instructed courses having to do with community decision-making. In Syracuse I was director of a seminar involving community decision-makers called the community seminar. With this background and interest in community decision-making, when the fight occurred in Concord, I wrote a letter to The Concord Journal, the local newspaper, suggesting that the community ought to have an investigation of that fracus to determine exactly what happened.

During this period from 1974 forward, Boston had undergone a considerable amount of disruption in its school system associated with desegregation resulting in some violence; and the violence in Boston had been labeled race-related. In Concord when violence occurred between black and white students, Concord attempted to downgrade it and classify it as simply schoolboys fighting with each other. From my perspective, as one who has been involved in the study of race relations over the years, it seemed to me that Concord was facing a race-related human relations problem too. From my perspective it would be harmful to a community not to acknowledge what actually it was facing and attempt to use some euphemistic label that would cause it not to face up to the problem of inter-group relations, which really was its own problem - a problem that was similar to the problem which its neighboring city, Boston, was undergoing.

My letter to the editor suggested that the community ought to investigate to see just what happened during that fight. I used as precedent the fact that the community had established a committee to investigate whether or not the revolutionary cannon should continue to be fired when Patriot's Day was celebrated because the firing of the cannon had resulted in injury to one of the minutemen who re-enacted the revolutionary experience each year; and because of that injury, the community had decided that the firing of that cannon would be postponed or set aside until a full investigation determined whether or not it was safe. Using that experience as precedent, I suggested that if we could establish a committee to determine whether it was safe to continue to ceremonially fire the cannon on Patriots Day, we ought to be able to establish a committee to determine whether it was safe for our students of different races to go to school together, and if it was not, what ought to be done to overcome the difficulties that separated them.

That letter resulted in my being invited to be chair of a special committee that was appointed by the superintendent of the schools in Concord to investigate that fracus at the Concord- Carlisle Regional High School. Ralph Sloan was superintendent of schools during the spring semester when the fight occurred. When the committee was finally established, an acting superintendent by the name of Seldon Whitaker was in office then. Ralph Sloan had been elected as superintendent of another school district outside of Concord, so the committee and its deliberations proceeded with Ruth Salinger as president of the school committee and with Seldon Whitaker as superintendent of schools during the period that I was actively involved.

The committee was an interesting committee. I have been a great believer in diversity. I think that people of unlike experiences bring something to a deliberative session that is unique. Also, I think that the diversity serves as a self-correcting experience, so that the perspective of one who can be corrected or enhanced by the perspective of another. Therefore, I recommended that the investigative committee should include students as well as adults, blacks as well as whites, representatives of the police as well as representatives of the school administration and faculty, and representatives of parents, and representatives of the community at large who might not have students in the school. It was a beautiful committee from my perspective. Indeed, I have sometimes characterized that committee as being unlike any that Concord has ever experienced before, in that a majority of the members of the committee really represented minority racial and ethnic groups. I would say that committee may have had about 10 to 15 members, and it deliberated regularly, investigated all phases of the incident, talked with a range of individuals in private session, took their testimony and also their recommendations and finally came forth with a report both describing what happened, what contributed to the breakdown in race relations, and with recommendations regarding what might prevent such a happening in the future.

The report was well received by the school committee, and the recommendations were adopted; and the administrative staff of the public school system as well as the school committee moved with dispatch to implement the report.

Meanwhile, the committee had interpreted its function as clarifying the issues for the superintendent who had the legal authority to make recommendations to the school committee. The committee, therefore, did not believe that it operated under the open-meeting law of the state of Massachusetts which requires all meetings of public bodies to be public. The committee in particular, serving as an advisor to the superintendent, felt that it did not have to meet the requirements of the open meeting as it would have if it had been appointed by the school committee. The committee believed that it was appropriate to conduct its business in private because much of the information it received was heresay, some of it was in error, some of it was false. Nevertheless, the names of students and the names of other residents of the community had been mentioned, and the committee felt that it was inappropriate to publicly have statements made about citizens of the community that were in error, that were false, that others would not be able to know were in error and were false. So the committee felt that it ought to operate in private until it had verified and documented the incident and then make public its report. Others felt that the report was appropriate, that it was forthright and dealt with the issues.

There were some people in the community who were more concerned with the legal and procedural issue. Although the committee's report was well received, as chair of the committee, I was cited as violating the open meeting law; and some disgruntled members of the community approached the attorney general's office and an assistant attorney general agreed to take on the case as a violation of the open meeting law. I was summoned into court, state court, the People of Massachusetts vs. Charles Willie. It was a disheartening, and in some respects an annoying experience to have volunteered one's time and energy to help a community put itself back together and chart a course of action for the future that would be helpful and at the same time to be harrassed by what I considered to be a frivolous charge against the committee that certainly was representative of the community as violating the open meeting law.

In some respects with hindsight I understand the annoyance that some citizens of Concord may have had with that committee. It was a committee unlike any that Concordians had experienced before and the committee made very direct and serious charges against the Concord community for its mingling experience of racism, which it had not purged itself of and which contributed to that fight between the black and white youngsters at the high school. So here you had a committee chaired by one who was black, and there are certainly not many black citizens in Concord, and a committee with young people as well as adults on it, sitting in judgment on a community that certainly has a proud heritage, despite the fact that pride probably may be the undoing of not only communities but individuals. That committee made some harsh judgments about a community that is quite prideful. I think in some respects these were some of the reasons why the committee was drawn into court.

That experience taught me something, however. It taught me that despite the fact that one may volunteer one's time to help, if one were unique in terms of race and in terms of other characteristics, oftentimes the helping function of the individual would be discounted in favor of the unique racial and ethnic background of the individual. Now from my perspective, that's harassing and it's unpleasant; but it is no basis for ceasing to serve as an effective member of the community.

The judge in the state supreme court I think felt very much as I did, that it was a frivolous charge. The compromise that I reached with the assistance of the school committee's attorney and the judge was that we would simply make the minutes of the committee proceedings public, we would erase the names of individuals that were mentioned in the minutes and make them otherwise public, and we did. The Concord Journal published excerpts from those minutes, but no one seemed to be that interested in the substance of the committee meeting, since the final report had been really the instrument that had been adopted for effective action for the future.

That was an interesting introduction, however, to Concord by one who is racially unlike most of the residents of Concord. I had in that experience in 1978 in Concord tangible evidence that race is a lingering fact in the psyche of American society that can become manifested at anytime when it is offended.

I was heartened by the way that the Concord community in general responded to the report of the committee. The school committee moved to increase the number of METCO students because the report pointed out that one of the problems was the absence of a critical mass of black students at the high school, while there is a tendency after a problem to reduce the amount of integration racially, thinking that a community that had not been able to deal with the issue as it was ought to start with smaller numbers. The committee forthrightly pointed out that probably the lack of involvement of the two racial populations was due to the fact that one of them was too small. The school committee accepted that conclusion and immediately encouraged an increase in the METCO population of students from Boston that Concord schools received. The school system also did a few other things, such as making efforts to diversify its faculty more, although I might say I have not been happy with the level of diversity of the faculty at the high school. Nevertheless, efforts were made to do that again in response to the report that our committee had issued. Despite the harassments and the difficulties that we encountered, I would conclude that the efforts of our committee were effective, and I was very pleased with the reception of our recommendations, and I felt as a citizen I had made a contribution to this community.

The problems between the students of different races in the high school were manifestations of attitudes of parents in the Concord and Boston communities and that, if the schools were to handle a situation of inter-group relations properly, support would have to come from the community. We also knew that there had been problems of racial discrimination in access to housing in the Concord community, and we knew that the racial population of blacks and browns in the Concord community was woefully small.

Given these facts, some people decided that the fight at the high school had been an indication that the community ought to move on its own to make sure that these kinds of things do not happen in the future and that other kinds of issues involving racial estrangement would be either prevented or overcome with community support. Therefore, the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council was established. That was a direct outcome from the concern that was developed within the community through the investigation of the fight at the high school.

The Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council was concerned with a broader charter than simply the interaction between students within schools. It was concerned about the community, about housing; it was concerned about a range of other activities. That human rights council was one of the best things that happened to Concord from my judgment. Concord had ceased boasting about its illustrious past and had began to work toward creating an illustrious future. I have never worked with people that I felt were more dedicated to human rights and fair play and justice than the people on the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council. The council has never been very large and to some extent has worked through its executive committee. It does have assemblies from time to time, but it is a small group. It is representative of the community and has done a very fine job of being advocates for open housing, advocates for affordable housing, and advocates for good race relations, and so on.

I was one of the founding members of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council and served on its executive board for a number of years, and I have been very pleased with what they have done. That group continues and still is very effective. This is one reason why I have been very pleased as a resident of the Concord community. It is a community that has blemishes in terms of inter-group relations that are not unlike the blemishes found in other communities, but it is a community that once it is confronted with the need to act, tends to take the necessary action to overcome the problems with which it is confronted.

For example, the high school had another problem a few years after the fight in 1978. Under the cover of darkness some students spray painted on the walls of the high school about racial groups, spray painted symbols such as a swastika on the flag out front of the school. The principal of the school, Elaine DiCicco, who was the principal during the time of the 1978 fight (as a matter of fact she had only been a principal for less than a semester at that time), certainly had cooperated with the investigating committee. This time on her own she had decided that she would not let a few silly students upset an entire student body, so she summoned the janitors out of bed in the middle of the night to erase the naughty graffiti that had been spray painted on the walls of the school. She informed other community members, particularly members of the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council.

I, as a member of that council, and Ruth Salinger immediately went into action. We summoned a community meeting at the First Parish early Sunday morning so that people could hear about what had happened and probably discuss it in their church congregations. We had a meeting of the school superintendent. At that time we had a new superintendent. His name was Irwin Blumer. I remember calling him particularly and informing him of the community meeting and inviting him to be present so that he could share with the community information on what had happened, and I appreciate his role as superintendent. He informed me that he wanted to make his own investigation. He wasn't quite sure what had happened himself. I acknowledged that that was a legitimate, professional role for him to follow, but I also pointed out that it was important for the schools to have community support and that I would strongly urge that he show up at the community meeting, and he did. I recall my daughter was there who was a student at Concord-Carlisle High School, and I believe she was president of the student government that year, and we had probably fifty people early in the morning in the undercrof of First Parish Church in Concord. That is the church of which Ruth Salinger was a member, and Dana McLean Greeley was the minister.

It was really from my perspective an exhilarating community meeting. Ruth Salinger and I had prepared a resolution expressing the interest of the community about overcoming these kinds of issues and condemning them. Our resolution was relatively mild because we wanted to gather up a full range of opinion among individuals at that meeting, and to our surprise the assembly was so incensed over this issue that they set aside our resolution and adopted one that was more severe in condemning the inhumane practices and the graffiti that was insulting to the minority students. We were very pleased about this. Indeed, I was most pleased with the reasoning that Elaine DiCicco, the principal of the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, gave for her actions. She said that she wanted to show those who had hostility against various racial groups that they now were the minority and that a wonderful human rights climate that was inclusive was really the majority opinion of the Concord community.

I recite that incident because I think it shows what can happen in a community once there is an organizational structure to which people of good will can turn for the purpose of engaging in collective action. The Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council has continued to serve in that function. It is more or less low key in its approach to things, but at the time of a crisis it can always be counted upon to rally the community in support of human rights principles instead of permitting anti human rights principles to become the prevailing ethos of the community.

Text mounted 9th October 2013; imiage mounted 12 October 2013 -- rcwh.