Breeden an important thinker in Boston’s civil rights movement
James Breeden was 27 years old in 1961, back when the civil rights movement was charting an uncertain course in the segregated and often violent Deep South.
Breeden and about 20 other Episcopal priests chartered a bus to participate in one of the Freedom Rides. Breeden said he had heard about the angry mobs and the racist law enforcement officers. But what changed his life was an incident that occurred during his ride to Jackson, Mississippi.
“We went into a local bus terminal,” Breeden said. “We sought service at this restaurant, but as soon as we came in we were arrested.”
He and his group were found guilty, though he’s not exactly sure of what — according to his best recollection, he said it was “action likely to cause a riot” — and jailed for three days. The case was later appealed to the county and eventually thrown out.
The priest said his group was fortunate, but the brush with Southern-style justice set the tone for his participation in a legendary movement that helped change the face of Boston.
Breeden participated in a symposium held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library last weekend and recounted his experiences during the two-day event, “Power and Protest: The Civil Rights Movement in Boston, 1960-1968.”
For many people, Breeden said, the history of race relations in Boston is centered on busing in the 1970s. But the 1974 schools desegregation order may have never happened without the civil rights movement, which emerged in Boston in the mid-Sixties.
Breeden was an unlikely leader. He came to Boston in 1960, looking for a place to be a priest. “St. John’s Church in the North Shore town of Beverly Farms had given money to a Roxbury parish to add another person to their staff,” he explained.
Fate brought him to Roxbury’s St. James Episcopal Church and later to St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston where he began his 40-year mission for justice as an education administrator, teacher and Christian leader. Throughout the Sixties and before the busing crisis, he coordinated non-violent mass protests with churches and other civil rights organizations often drawing masses of people, which helped bring public attention to segregation issues.
“My role was to bring school desegregation to public attention,” Breeden said. “The school committee at the time did not want to acknowledge that such a problem existed within neighborhoods and schools. To them, segregation wasn’t a problem and they weren’t ready to admit that they were wrong.”
Finding this stance unacceptable, Breeden and his supporters organized the first “Stay Out for Freedom” on June 18, 1963, to protest the lack of quality public education in Boston.
More followed. About 3,000 African American students attended “freedom schools,” which were set up in churches and community centers throughout the city. Students studied African American history, the civil rights movement and non-violent resistance.
“People often call [Stay Out for Freedom] a boycott, but it wasn’t,” said Breeden. “During a boycott, you go on as long as you can.”
Breeden’s involvement with civil rights continued. In 1964 and ’65, he led rent strikes against landlords who failed to bring their properties to code. In 1969, he served as director of the Citywide Coordinating Council, the monitoring group that reported to the court and the public on compliance with the U.S. Federal District Court Desegregation Order. That same year, he began both teaching as an associate professor of education and social policy and taking classes at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he eventually earned his Ph.D. in education administration.
His leadership brought him to Tanzania in 1973 where he served as professor of education at the University of dar es Salaam. In 1984, he was appointed Dean of Dartmouth College’s Tucker Foundation, which runs religious and social service programs and raises moral and spiritual issues.
But even after a lifetime of facing life’s most sobering realities and academic pursuits, the preacher still hasn’t lost his sense of humor, most evident when talking about that brush with Southern justice.
“After the verdict was overturned, we all got together with our lawyer and started talking about whether or not we wanted to sue the judge who sentenced us and the police chief who arrested us for conspiring to deny our constitutional rights,” Breeden said. “And after a while, we agreed that the thing to do as non-violent pacifists would be to not do that, to just let the issue drop.”
A smile stretched across Breeden’s face.
“But then we said, ‘Well, we’re really not all that non-violent,’” he said with a laugh, “so we sued them.”