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

Federal Surrender in Chicago

"When the United States Office of Education was pressured into restoring Federal funds to Chicago’s segregated public school system, it represented the first abject surrender to the principle that separate but equal is wrong in the South, but acceptable in the North—particularly if a city can muster enough Northern politicians and educators with a segregationist mentality to practice this shameful hypocrisy." 
—Adam Clayton Powell, 1965

On July 4, 1965, after months of school protests and boycotts, civil rights advocates in Chicago filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Education charging that the Chicago Board of Education violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The implications of the charges were extremely serious. If Chicago had violated Title VI, which gave the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) authority to withhold funds if school districts failed to comply with rules against school segregation, the city stood to lose $30 million in federal money. Drawing on evidence from an array of published reports and their own investigations, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO) told federal officials that 81 percent of elementary schools and 73 percent of high schools were racially segregated, with 90 percent of black students attending segregated schools. These blacks schools were more acutely overcrowded, had a higher percentage of noncertified teachers, and offered fewer honors classes than white schools. The CCCO presented its case in no uncertain terms. “The Chicago Board of Education has deliberately segregated the city’s public school system,” a CCCO report began. “Neither segregation nor integration just ‘happens.’ Each is deliberately stalled or prevented. The school board, acting under advice of its general superintendent, pursues a deliberate policy of segregation.” In its letter to the Office of Education, the civil rights coalition argued that Chicago’s schools were unconstitutionally segregated: “When a public body such as the school board draws boundary lines such as it has in the past, and is likely to do again, that produce segregation, then what we have is not de facto segregation—it is de jure segregation.” In addition to calling the innocence of Chicago’s school segregation into question, the complaint correctly predicted that Chicago’s evasion of school desegregation could have a national influence. “We are further persuaded that the ways and means of creating and perpetuating segregation in Chicago may become the handbook for southern communities seeking to evade the 1954 Supreme Court ruling. We are confident that federal intervention in this matter, through the withholding of funds, will help underline the high fiscal cost, as well the immeasurable social cost, of segregation to Chicago and to the rest of the nation.”

When HEW received the Chicago complaint, the agency was focused on school segregation in the South. When HEW’s Title VI enforcement guidelines were announced in the Saturday Review in March 1965, the magazine made this southern focus clear: “[Saturday Review] hopes that Southern school authorities will find these guidelines helpful in making the fateful decisions that confront them. And Northern readers will find, in the calm words and careful analysis of the memo, a clear view of the issues as they have evolved to date.” Titled “Title VI: Southern Education Faces the Facts,” this introduction to Title VI addressed northerners as innocent readers following a story taking place elsewhere, suggesting the disbelief that greeted the prospect of federal funds being withheld from Chicago for violating the Civil Rights Act.

HEW briefly withheld $30 million in federal funds from Chicago in fall 1965, finding the city’s schools to be in “probable noncompliance” with Title VI’s antidiscrimination provisions. Facing pressure from Mayor Richard J. Daley, Senator Everett Dirksen, Illinois congressmen, and President Johnson, HEW’s case in Chicago quickly unraveled, exposing the limits of federal authority in the face of school segregation in the North. “Mayor Daley ostensibly supported the Civil Rights Act and all the Democratic Congressmen from Illinois . . . voted for it,” CCCO leader Al Raby said after the federal funds were restored just five days later. “Yet they are the first to squeal like stuck pigs when the bill is enforced in the North.” What Raby saw as a contradiction was actually a logical outcome of the decision to include an “antibusing” provision in the Civil Rights Act that excluded desegregation to correct “racial imbalance” in the North. The Chicago Tribune, which staunchly opposed school desegregation in the city, regularly quoted Title IV, section 401b, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“{hrs}‘Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but ‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance”) to support their case against school desegregation. If New York’s “antibusing” protests encouraged northern congressmen to exempt northern schools from the Civil Rights Act, HEW’s surrender in Chicago encouraged school officials and politicians to maintain positions of resistance and noncompliance with regard to school desegregation.

By 1965, Chicago’s civil rights advocates had engaged in nearly a decade of organized efforts to uproot school segregation but saw little movement from school officials. A series of external reports—Northwestern University law professor John Coons studied the schools for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962, and University of Chicago professors Philip Hauser and Robert Havinghurst led committees that published reports in 1964—corroborated and extended the research on school segregation in Chicago that civil rights groups had been conducting since the mid-1950s. Neither these reports nor the school boycotts were enough to force Willis and the school board to take action on school desegregation. Meyer Weinberg, chairman of the CCCO’s Education Committee and editor of the journal Integrated Education, expressed frustration at how school officials offered only watered-down proposals in response to civil rights demands. “The civil rights movement always loses because we let Willis define the problem and make the proposals—to which we only react,” Weinberg told his colleagues. School officials would face more pressure, he suggested, if the schools were confronted with the loss of federal funds due to violations of the Civil Rights Act. To this end, on July 4, 1965, the CCCO filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Education charging that the Chicago Board of Education had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Chicago presented the first test of Title VI in schools outside the South. Title VI had received relatively little attention in the lengthy debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but quickly emerged as one of the most important and controversial aspects of the legislation. In requiring compliance with antidiscrimination provisions to receive federal funds, Title VI gave the federal government a new weapon to compel school districts to end school segregation. And as federal funds came to constitute a larger share of local school budgets, the threat of withholding significant sums of money added a material cost to resisting school desegregation. In Chicago, for example, federal aid to schools had increased from $372,000 in 1954 to $47.5 million in 1966. Like Title IV, however, which differentiated between southern school segregation and northern “racial imbalance,” Congress did not intend Title VI to apply outside the South. In the floor debate of the Civil Rights Act, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota reassured Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia that “there is no case in which the thrust of the statute under which the money would be given would be directed toward restoring or bringing about a racial balance in the schools.” Humphrey also referenced Bell v. School City of Gary, Indiana, a 1963 federal court decision upholding “neighborhood schools,” arguing, “This case makes it quite clear that while the Constitution prohibits segregation, it does not require integration.” After receiving the CCCO’s complaint regarding Chicago, James Quigley, HEW assistant secretary, said the agency was trying to figure out the applicability of Title VI outside of the South. “I’m inclined to feel that title VI does not apply to complaints of de facto segregation, but might be applicable to some conditions in the north,” Quigley said. “If we find that Negro children are in fact being treated differently from white children in Chicago, for example, title VI would give us the power to act.”

While federal officials were weighing their options in Chicago, the Tribune railed against the threat of withholding federal funds from the city’s schools. Describing the CCCO’s complaint as “the latest example of extremism in this movement,” the Tribune predicted, “If the government should be silly enough to mount an offensive against Chicagoans by withholding money it has wrung out of them in taxes, the resentment predictably would be great and general.” In language that drew on anti–civil rights propaganda funded by far-right conservatives and the state of Mississippi, the Tribune’s editorial saw Title VI as “a hundred billion dollar blackjack . . . with which to club the American people into submission.” School officials shared this anger and provided little assistance to the federal investigators. John Coons, who studied Chicago’s schools in 1962 for U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, ran into administrative resistance while preparing a report for HEW regarding Chicago’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act. Coons recalled having the sense that school officials and principals “were uneasy in their chairs when you talked to them.” Over the course of a three-month survey, Coons was granted only a ten-minute meeting with Superintendent Willis, which, Coons remarked, “consisted of a denunciation of my mission and myself.” Coons described Willis’s “refusal to cooperate” as “final and total” and wrote to school board member Frank Whitson in an attempt to find someone from the schools to provide information to balance the civil rights complaints. “This situation would have some aspects of comedy were it not for my responsibility to report to the Federal Government,” Coons said. New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell told Francis Keppel, who oversaw HEW educational policy as U.S. commissioner of education, that Willis’s lack of cooperation “would seem to me to constitute open defiance of the requirements of the civil rights act of 1964.” To put more pressure on Chicago, Powell arranged hearings as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee to investigate “de facto racial segregation” in Chicago’s schools. On September 30, 1965, Keppel wrote to Illinois superintendent of public instruction Ray Page indicating that Chicago’s schools were in “probable noncompliance” with the Civil Rights Act and that the city’s application for $30 million as part of Elementary and Secondary Education Act would be deferred under Title VI. Al Raby, a Chicago native and former teacher who emerged as CCCO’s leader, called the decision “the first crack in school segregation in Chicago.” The Defender saw HEW’s decision as a vindication of the black community and years of school segregation complaints: “Keppel’s action freezing $30 million dollars in Federal aid for Chicago public schools establishes beyond the shadow of a doubt that the charges of de facto segregation were not figments of psychotic imagination.”

News of the federal fund withholding also topped the front page of the Tribune (“City School Aid Halted”), and the paper’s coverage anticipated how HEW’s intervention in Chicago would play out over the next week. The Tribune quoted U.S. congressman Roman Pucinski, who represented a heavily Polish-American northwest Chicago district, calling the decision “arbitrary, capricious, unjustified, and a violation of the civil rights act itself.” Congressmen Daniel Rostenkowski and John Klucsynski also spoke out against HEW, as did Senator Everett Dirksen, who, as Senate minority leader, had helped craft the Civil Rights Act and its focus on enforcement in the South. The Tribune’s editors phrased their opposition to HEW as an open challenge to the state’s leading politicians: “How humiliating it must be for Mayor Daley and Gov. Kerner, the leading Democrats of Illinois, to be kicked in the teeth by a petty burocrat [sic] of the Johnson Democratic administration! . . . The Tribune warned that [the Civil Rights Act] would become a dangerous new stick in federal hands. The stick is now being used to beat Chicago.”

Daley did not need the Tribune’s editorial to convince him to fight to get the $30 million in federal funds restored to Chicago’s schools. As mayor of Chicago and head of the Cook County Democratic organization, Daley was one of the most powerful and influential politicians in the country. At the local level, he had control of tens of thousands of city and county jobs; at the national level, Daley could deliver votes to Democratic presidential candidates and support from Chicago congressmen for presidential legislative priorities. Daley had the ear of President Johnson, and when both men were in New York on October 3 for an immigration bill signing, he told the president about his anger and confusion over the funds withholding. The next day at the White House, President Johnson conveyed Daley’s anger to Keppel and made it clear that he wanted HEW to settle the issue as quickly as possible. Ruby Martin, who later directed HEW’s Office of Civil Rights, speculated that the first lady’s efforts to bring more flowers to U.S. cities and highways figured in the president’s decision. “There are some people who suspect that Lady Bird’s Beautification Program was at stake,” Martin recalled in a 1969 interview, “and that Mayor Daley controls eleven votes in Congress, and he threatened to pull all eleven of them back to Chicago or off the floor when Lady Bird’s Beautification Bill came up.” On October 5, HEW undersecretary Wilbur Cohen flew to Chicago to negotiate a settlement with school board president Frank Whitson. Under the terms of the agreement, HEW released the funds and withdrew its investigators until the end of the year. In exchange, the school board only had to agree to investigate school attendance boundaries and reaffirm two policies regarding trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

HEW’s abrupt surrender in Chicago reverberated locally and nationally. “We are shocked at the shameless display of naked policy power exhibited by Mayor Daley,” CCCO’s Al Raby said. “Not a single segregated situation will be substantially altered by the terms of the agreement reached between HEW and Whitson. We are still saddled with the Willis system of separate, inferior education. A school board committee has been appointed to investigate school district gerrymandering. For the same school board which created the gerrymandering to investigate its own handiwork is absurd.” For others, securing the status quo in Chicago’s schools was a positive outcome. Representative Pucinski, who also lobbied the White House to persuade HEW to restore the funds, described the decision as “an abject surrender by Keppel—a great victory for local government, a great victory for Chicago.” The negotiated settlement involved only “minor concessions,” Pucinski said, “face-savers for the Office of Education. They don’t mean a thing.” The Tribune called Willis “a man among midgets” and praised him as the “only official who has had the courage to stand up against the power play of the federal office of education.” Writing in the Washington Post, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak said that after the “fiasco” in Chicago, “Willis is more than ever a white folk hero and will be harder than ever to get rid of.” The New York Times saw the Chicago fund case as “a singular instance of a northern city’s cry of ‘states rights’—more precisely, ‘city’s rights’—to defeat a Johnson Administration strategy.” For Adam Clayton Powell, Chicago “represented the first abject surrender to the principle that separate but equal is wrong in the South, but acceptable in the North—particularly if a city can muster enough Northern politicians and educators with a segregationist mentality to practice this shameful hypocrisy.”

For HEW, Chicago ended discussions of using Title VI to eliminate “de facto” segregation and significantly limited federal investigations of school segregation outside the South. Keppel met with school officials from the fifty largest cities at the end of October 1965 to calm their fears about federal intervention in large cities. “It is obvious that the question of civil rights in the big cities won’t be answered to my satisfaction or that of people in my position, for years,” Keppel remarked. A January 1966 HEW memo to the White House outlined the logic for focusing on de jure segregation in the South:

The primary reason for taking this approach is our lack of factual information about the various issues, situations, possibilities and probabilities in the North and West. We have had almost a year and a half of dealing with the South, but we have only been concerned with the North and West for about four or five months. The general consensus is that we should be more knowledgeable before we issue standards which we may live to regret, either because they are too narrow, too broad, or inadequate. The answer to queries about why we are not dealing with the North and West is that, while Title VI applies to the North and West as well as to the South and while we are investigating complaints of discrimination against Northern and Western schools, we simply have not had enough experience as yet in these areas to issue guidelines of general applicability.

Ruby Martin described Chicago as a “tremendous setback” for HEW. After Chicago, she said, “We made a conscious decision—some people call it a political decision—not to take on any large school districts . . . because our resources are limited. You can get involved in a large city for two years and come out of it bloodied, bruised, and scarred, and nothing [is] going to change the situation.” For school officials, politicians, and civil rights advocates in other northern cities who were following the case, the lesson from Chicago was that federal authorities did not have the resources or political will to combat school segregation in the North. HEW’s surrender in Chicago encouraged school officials and politicians to maintain positions of resistance and noncompliance with regard to school desegregation, while it led black parents and students to doubt that any federal authority could successfully address their concerns.

“How long should it take an obvious truth to become a bona fide, recognized, undeniable fact?” Black journalist Vernon Jarrett raised this question in 1979 in response to a new HEW statement on Chicago’s schools. Drawing on school board meeting minutes and including over one hundred pages of supporting evidence, the statement charged that since 1938 Chicago’s school board had “created, maintained, and exacerbated . . . unlawfully segregated schools systemwide.” This charge of intentional segregation validated the complaints made by civil rights advocates over the previous twenty years. The 1979 HEW statement again faced a resistant school board and lack of federal support, especially after the Reagan administration reorganized HEW into Human Services and shifted what little civil rights enforcement there was to the Justice Department. In 1983, U.S. district judge Milton Shadur approved a consent decree between the Chicago school board and the Justice Department that called for majority-white schools to have at least 30 percent minority enrollment and for increased use of magnet schools to encourage voluntary integration, but did little to improve educational opportunities at the city’s remaining all-black or majority-minority schools.

Chicago stands out in the history of “busing” for school desegregation as the paramount example of the inability of federal authorities to uproot school segregation outside the South. Despite overwhelming evidence that Chicago school officials were not innocent bystanders to the creation and maintenance of racially differentiated schools, the federal government lacked the political will and resources to require school desegregation in the city. Civil rights activists, parents, and students were organized, creative, and persistent in their protests, but Benjamin Willis and Mayor Daley, a recalcitrant school leader and a powerful political boss, ultimately thwarted their efforts. Willis, as founder and president of the Research Council for the Great Cities Program for School Improvement, which brought together the leaders of the fourteen largest city public school systems, was the nation’s most influential school superintendent in this era. His near absolute resistance to civil rights, in the face of public protests and federal investigations, surely influenced what school officials in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco felt was necessary or required to satisfy federal civil rights standards.

Boston school officials were among those who took notice of HEW’s retreat in Chicago. Two days after HEW withheld funds from Chicago, and before Mayor Daley successfully pressed for them to be restored, the Boston Globe published an article titled “And Boston Begins to Sweat.” “As a stunned Chicago learned it may lose $34 million in Federal school funds,” the article began, “a government team continued to investigate possible discriminatory practices in Hub schools.”105 After getting drummed out of Chicago, the federal investigators trod very lightly in Boston, allowing “antibusing” resistance to school desegregation to expand and flourish in the Cradle of Liberty.

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