The American dilemma Residents of Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood react to forced busing in 1975. (Alex Webb via Magnum Photos)

In the fall of 1974, black schoolchildren from Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood climbed into school buses bound for South Boston, the heart of the “riff-raff” Irish working classes. White “Townies” from Charlestown had scrawled “Kill Niggers” on apartment walls and set fire to straw effigies with black garbage-bag heads. Buses were burned, rocks hurled. Death threats and mutual resentment followed the black children into the school hallways and classrooms that first day, and for incendiary months to come.

Court-ordered busing that was meant to reverse stubborn de facto school segregation nearly ripped apart the social fabric of that historic city. It exposed the raw residue of Yankee guilt, black anger, and Irish immigrant antipathy—the churning clash of cultures that defines America. The country’s racial enmity showed its ugliest face not on the steps of an Arkansas high school this time, but in genteel Boston, the intellectual capital of the abolitionist movement, the “cradle of liberty.”

Into this firestorm walked J. Anthony Lukas, a reporter’s reporter with a fierce curiosity and an endless capacity to inhabit the lives of his subjects—to plumb the depths of the “tribal histories” that trailed behind them. He wasn’t so much looking for truth in its purest sense, or the quaint satisfaction of solutions, as for something much bigger, much messier. He was looking to understand the fundamental roots of America’s fears and tensions, where they originated, why they are so often about race.

More than seven years later, Lukas emerged with a 650-page masterpiece that defies definition. Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families is a work of historic nonfiction about Boston’s school busing crisis from 1968 to 1978. That’s the catalogue-card version. It is also an ambitious tableau reaching back in time to the beginnings of Puritan America, through the civil rights era to the present, circling back to the origins of slavery, of Ireland’s turmoil, and of church history, legal history, the press, and urban politics.

Describing his intellectual journey, Lukas told one interviewer, “The book didn’t take me from left to right or from right to left, but from the party of simplicity to the party of complexity.” It’s a definition of objectivity.

Lukas probably had no intention of writing the great American education story. But no nonfiction narrative journalist has touched his genius on the subject since. His newspaper career up to that point had taken him from covering crime in Baltimore and politics in Chicago, to foreign conflicts in the Congo, Pakistan, India, and South Africa. For much of that time he worked for The New York Times and its Sunday magazine. His previous freelance project had entangled him in the drama of Watergate for a book he called Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years. Restless on his lofty perch looking down on the world’s and the nation’s politics, Lukas wanted instead to pull his reporter’s chair up to the kitchen tables of ordinary Americans, to enter their lives and their minds.

His inspiration for Common Ground came from the news. Senator Ted Kennedy had been driven from a speaker’s platform by an angry mob of Irish Catholics incensed by his support for school integration. He was forced to take refuge in a nearby federal building—one named after his brother John. “What in the world is going on when Ted Kennedy is driven to shelter by his ‘own people?’” Lukas remembered asking himself at the time. “‘What in the world’ is a pretty good starting place for a story.”

That world, Lukas intuited, would lead him into the heart of the American dilemma: the tattered promise of an equal shot at prosperity and education for all, for descendants of slaves as well as immigrant strivers. What happens when institutions like public schools are asked to shoulder the weight of racial disparities and disappointments? Who wins, who loses? Lukas decided to enter that world as close to the ground as a journalist could, through the deeply flawed lives of ordinary Bostonians—a poor, passionate black mother of six; a working-class Irish Catholic mother of seven; and a privileged Yankee couple dedicated to making integration work.

Lukas not only defined the education issue of our time but also located its center of gravity: inside neighborhoods, public schools, families’ homes, and people’s minds. And his book reminds us just how far our focus has strayed. As the late author and journalist Herbert Mitgang said, “I believe that what happened in Boston was not a random series of events but the acting out of the burden of American history.”

LynNell Hancock is the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at Columbia, and director of the school's Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism.