Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

Busing before "Busing"

"What people who oppose busing object to, is not the little yellow school buses, but rather to the little black bodies that are on the bus." 
—Georgia state legislator Julian Bond, 1972

As civil rights advocates continually pointed out, Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. The number of students transported to school at public expense in the United States expanded from 600,000 in 1920 to 20,000,000 in 1970. In concert with rural to urban migration, school buses made it possible for multigrade elementary schools to replace one-room schoolhouses and for comprehensive high schools to become commonplace. School buses, in this era, were among the educational privileges enjoyed by white students.

Black commentators emphasized that buses had long been used in the South, as well as New York, Boston, and many other northern cities, to maintain segregation. Students rode buses past closer neighborhood schools to more distant segregated schools. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, for example, featured an editorial cartoon with a school bus labeled “segregated busing for black children” driving past a white school, with a caption quoted from Vernon Jordan: “Black people need only think back a few years . . . to recall how they were bused far from home past nearby predominantly white schools to attend all-black ones.” Rosa Parks, recalling her childhood in Montgomery, Alabama, noted “The white rode buses, the Negro walked long weary miles in all kind of weather, cold, wind and rain, as well as the scortching [sic] heat of summer.” Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, president of University of Notre Dame and a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, said, “I remember Medgar Evers saying that his first recollection of busing was the new school buses passing him and other black children on the way to school . . . splashing them with mud as the white children on their way to a good school yelled out the window, ‘Nigger! Nigger!’ No objections to busing then.”

“What bothers me,” U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said, “is where were all those [antibusing] voices when black children were being bused right past their neighborhood schools in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama . . . riding old rat-trap buses down the back roads to dirty schools with tarpaper and no toilets? I’ve seen little children in Mississippi get up at 5 A.M. to take a bus one hour to a little shanty on the outskirts of town, and one back home again. If you believe in neighborhood schools, why didn’t you talk about busing then? Historian John Hope Franklin described “busing” as “an example of the lengths to which people go to protect their racism,” and tried to put the issue in historical perspective. “All of this talk about the evils of busing is almost amusing. Back in the 1930s and 40s children all over the country, especially in rural areas, were bused to new centralized rural schools. No one ever complained. It was acknowledged that the centralized schools could do a better job than the little one-room school houses and that a bus trip was a small price to pay for a better education. . . . Now when busing is proposed as a partial remedy to segregation, everyone is clamoring about how awful it is for children to go to school outside their own community.”

Linda Brown, the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, rode a bus over twenty blocks to attend a black school, when the white school was only four blocks from her family’s home. In 1959 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) ran a fund-raising advertisement in the New York Times to call attention to the use of “busing” to maintain segregated schools after Brown. The advertisement features a six-year-old girl asleep on a school bus, cradling her schoolbooks. The young girl in the image is a first-grade student in Yancey County, North Carolina, where she and other black children were bused past all-white schools in their home county to segregated black schools forty miles away in Asheville. “The situation in Yancey County has scores of parallels throughout the South,” the advertisement informs readers. “It’s been more than 5 long years since the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954—and yet the segregated school with its callous long-hauls and its myriad inferiorities continues to cheat Negro children of their right to equal training for life.”

With the growing use of school buses in most school districts, white parents did not raise a fuss or wax nostalgic for “neighborhood schools.” In Boston, more than 50 percent of middle-school students and 85 percent of high-school students were bused before court-ordered “busing” with no objection until and unless it was linked to desegregation. Put more starkly, then, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; “busing” was not.

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