Busing for School Desegregation

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Busing for School Desegregation

In the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education , the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public schools (schools that separate black and white students) violated the constitutional right of equal protection for all citizens. A year after the Brown ruling, the Court convened again to determine how to desegregate, or end school segregation . (See also Desegregation of Public Schools .) The Court stated that desegregation should proceed with “all deliberate speed.” Federal district judges were instructed to examine school systems on a city-by-city basis to create plans to correct illegal segregation. Since this guidance was vague, many school systems remained segregated for years.

In the 1960s, civil rights lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed lawsuits on behalf of black parents and children requesting the courts to require desegregation plans for individual cities. In a 1969 decision, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, the Supreme Court indicated that it would no longer tolerate delays in school desegregation. But exactly how to desegregate schools remained a question until the Supreme Court ruled on the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case in 1971.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district included the city of Charlotte, North Carolina , and rural Mecklenburg County. Twenty-nine percent of the district's school-age children were black, most of them concentrated in one area of Charlotte. Schools in the district were essentially either all-white or all-black, and the all-black schools were more poorly equipped than the all-white schools. In 1965, NAACP attorney Julius LeVonne Chambers (1936–) initiated a lawsuit to end racial segregation in the Charlotte public schools. The first ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg made only vague requirements for change. Initially, the school district adopted a plan that supposedly permitted students to transfer between schools if there were open places available. After these changes, though, only 490 of the 20,000 black students in the district attended schools that contained any white students, and most of these students were in one school that had only seven white students. The few black students who attempted to attend all-white schools were often attacked by mobs of angry whites.

Chambers filed another legal action in 1969. Federal District Judge James B. McMillan (1916–1995) found that the Charlotte schools were still illegally segregated. With the assistance of education consultants, McMillan developed and imposed a desegregation plan in the public schools that involved transporting white children to previously all-black schools and black children to previously all-white schools to achieve desegregation. By mixing black children and white children in every school building, the school officials would no longer be able to provide adequate educational resources only for white students. Since blacks tended to live in one area of the city, this required transporting the children.

Many white residents did not want their children to attend schools with black children. Judge McMillan received threatening telephone calls and was ostracized (excluded from social events) by the community. Chambers was directly attacked. Firebombs and dynamite damaged his office, car, and home. The school board still wanted to avoid desegregation and appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn Judge McMillan's busing plan.

Many people expected at least some of the Supreme Court justices to rule against busing as a tool for desegregating schools. President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) had campaigned against the forced busing of school children. Nixon's two appointees to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren Burger (1907–1995) and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (1908–1999), were presumed to agree with the president's view. Nonetheless, after much debate, on April 20, 1971, the Court ruled unanimously that judges could order school districts to use busing as a means to desegregate schools.

Busing plans nationwide

The use of busing spread as federal judges began to hear more lawsuits challenging discriminatory conditions in school systems. For once, desegregation plans were not limited to the South. In a 1973 case, the city of Denver, Colorado , was ordered to create a busing plan.

In 1974, a federal court ordered the schools in Boston, Massachusetts , to desegregate through an aggressive busing program. Boston's neighborhoods had long been divided by nationality and race. The court-ordered busing unleashed a storm of protest, frequent rioting, and even attacks on students. Residents of white neighborhoods threw rocks and bottles at buses and attacked black passersby. Violence between black and white students led to the presence of police on school grounds during much of the controversy. The violent conflict over busing in Boston lasted for years.

Eventually, most schools adjusted to busing, and desegregation became an accepted aspect of life in many public schools. In smaller cities, busing programs gave black students the opportunity to receive educational benefits that had previously been denied to them. Public opinion research indicated that, especially in southern states, the implementation of desegregation orders was accompanied by an increase in racial tolerance.

Milliken v. Bradley

In many large metropolitan (city) areas, however, schools failed to become racially mixed. Due to desegregation and busing requirements in the cities, many whites moved to the suburbs. As middle-class residents and businesses fled the cities, many cities were growing poor. Central city schools that often served poor minority students had significantly fewer resources than neighboring suburban schools for maintaining buildings and providing high-quality educational programs. To desegregate schools, the federal courts would have had to mix city school districts with neighboring suburban school districts.

After Swann, President Nixon had appointed four justices to the Supreme Court. In 1974, the Court issued a divided five-to-four decision in Milliken v. Bradley that prevented busing plans from crossing school district boundaries. Thus, in many large cities, segregation, and inferior education for black students, continued.