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

Making "Busing" About the Rights of Black Students

“Busing” for school desegregation was about the constitutional rights of black students, but the story of “busing” has been told and retold as a story about the feelings and opinions of white people. Reading the court decisions that led to court -ordered “busing” in cities like Pontiac and Boston makes it clear that years of educational discrimination preceded the court orders and can help to re-center the story of school desegregation on black students.

Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac
In Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac (1970), Judge Damon Keith wrote:

This Court finds that the Pontiac Board of Education intentionally utilized the power at their disposal to locate new schools and arrange boundaries in such a way as to perpetuate the pattern of segregation within the City and thereby, deliberately, in contradiction of their announced policies of achieving a racial mixture in the schools, prevented integration. When the power to act is available, failure to take the necessary steps so as to negate or alleviate a situation which is harmful is as wrong as is the taking of affirmative steps to advance that situation. Sins of omission can be as serious as sins of commission. Where a Board of Education has contributed and played a major role in the development and growth of a segregated situation, the Board is guilty of de jure segregation. The fact that such came slowly and surreptitiously rather than by legislative pronouncement makes the situation no less evil.

Judge Keith’s Davis ruling made Pontiac one of the first cities outside the South to be placed under court order to desegregate. The notion that the school desegregation controversy had moved north fueled much of the news coverage of Pontiac, but Judge Keith’s ruling made it clear that school segregation in Pontiac was not a new occurrence but had developed over several decades. Just as important, the Davis decision cast a critical light on so-called de facto segregation. Rather than seeing school segregation as a product of market forces and private decisions that government had no legal responsibility or authority to address, Judge Keith found that Pontiac school officials had taken specific actions regarding school siting, zoning, and student assignment that had contributed to the growth of a segregated school system and were unconstitutional. The Davis ruling was one of a number of successful cases brought by the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund in the early 1970s regarding school desegregation outside the South, including cases in other Michigan cities—Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, and Detroit—as well as Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that found evidence of unconstitutional segregation in Denver. The optimism prompted by these cases was severely constrained when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal district judge Stephen Roth’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), ruling that desegregation plans could not extend into suburban school districts unless multiple districts had deliberately engaged in segregated policies. The Nixon administration, moreover, encouraged the Justice Department to focus its resources on de jure segregation in the South rather than de facto segregation.

The Davis ruling confirmed the existence of school segregation in Pontiac, a fact that was obvious to anyone who cared to look. A 1968 report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission described Pontiac as “clearly segregated, with non-whites confined to a slowly expanding ghetto in the southern part of the city,” which whites commonly referred to as “colored town.” “Although Pontiac adopted a ‘Fair Housing Ordinance’ last year,” the commission’s report continued,

conditions remain as they have been for the past two or three decades. . . . Pontiac is a city divided by racial and ethnic prejudices and fears. Negro and Spanish American citizens are excluded from full participation in employment, housing, education, and social services. They are often denied equal protection under the laws and equal access to jobs and law enforcement agencies. The physical isolation which has resulted between white and nonwhite citizens has led to a communications gap of staggering proportions. Civil and governmental leaders have little concern for, or understanding of minority group problems. Negroes and Spanish Americans grow more and more distrustful of a community they feel is trying to contain them.

Pontiac NAACP chairman Elbert Hatchett, who attended public schools in the city, knew well the dynamics of Pontiac’s racial segregation and recalled that this knowledge had proved invaluable when he served as the plaintiff’s attorney in the Davis case. “We knew the Pontiac school system backwards and forwards, and we knew that it was a system that had race as one of the considerations in the manner in which they undertook to educate the populace in the city of Pontiac,” Hatchett recalled. “And we knew that the schools that were in the white affluent areas were given the benefit of much better facilities, much better equipment, much better everything than the counterparts in the predominantly black areas.” Like Hatchett, Pontiac teacher Jo Ann Walker understood the differences between the city’s majority black and white schools and elaborated on these disparities in her testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity, describing the difference in resources and educational environment in these schools as “like going from hell to heaven.” Whereas failing furnaces caused students in black schools to wear winter coats inside on cold days and teachers lacked pencils and chalk, at Le Baron, where the only black students were in special education classes, Walker noted that “there was a stockroom full of paper and pencils, everything you needed to do the job.” Le Baron Elementary, Walker told the Senate committee, “is the school where Mrs. McCabe’s daughter would go if she were not boycotting.” In his testimony to the same committee, Hatchett fielded a question from Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota, the committee chairman, who asked, “Was your case [Davis] really so hard to prove as the Government often claims northern cases to be?” “The [school] board came to the court and forthrightly admitted . . . that the school system was segregated,” Hatchett replied. “The only thing we were left with was to argue the cause. . . . So it was not quite as difficult as many of the northern cases.” 

Morgan v. Hennigan
As in Pontiac, Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision in Morgan v. Hennigan made it clear that the Boston School Committee and superintendent built and maintained a segregated system: “The court concludes that the defendants took many actions in their official capacities with the purpose and intent to segregate the Boston public schools and that such actions caused current conditions of segregation in the Boston public schools.” These actions were massive in scale and duration but unlike “antibusing” protests were not easily captured by television cameras or slotted into network news segments. “Plaintiffs have proved that the defendants intentionally segregated schools at all levels,” Garrity wrote, “built new schools for a decade with sizes and locations designed to promote segregation; maintained patterns of overcrowding and underutilization which promoted segregation at 26 schools; and expanded the capacity of approximately 40 schools by means of portables and additions when students could have been assigned to other schools with the effect of reducing racial imbalance.”

In their actions and failures to act, school officials built on discrimination in the housing market that contributed to residential and school segregation. A 1963 report on housing discrimination in Boston found that “despite the enactment of a fair housing law, widespread discriminatory housing practices continue to occur in Massachusetts,” adding that “techniques of discrimination employed by real estate brokers, developers, home owners, and landlords are varied, sometimes blunt, sometimes subtle.” These repeated acts of discrimination limited the apartments, houses, and neighborhoods available to black Bostonians and combined with official actions by school administrators regarding school siting, zoning, and enrollment policies to produce Boston’s segregated schools. These acts of force are crucial to understanding school segregation, but they remained out of site for viewers watching the Boston “busing crisis” unfold on their television screens. Instead, television news offered viewers intense images of force in confrontations between police and protestors.

The court’s ruling also made it clear that for all their local history and pride, schools in South Boston and Charlestown were part of the Boston public school system, not autonomous school districts. Geographical neighborhood boundaries, moreover, were not the primary factor in determining student attendance in Boston. Judge Garrity’s decision details how elementary school “district lines weave in and out,” with the effect that “the predominantly black areas are cut away from predominantly white areas.” Likewise, high-school enrollments were determined by feeder patterns from specific junior high schools, with black students generally entering high schools after eighth grade and white students after completing ninth grade. “The only consistent basis for the feeder pattern designations, changes and deletions was the racial factor,” Garrity wrote. “Neither distances between schools, capacities of receiving schools, means of transportation or natural boundaries explain them.”

Judges ordered “busing” as a remedy in northern school districts such as Boston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Pontiac that were found guilty of intentional de jure segregation in violation of Brown v. Board and the Fourteenth Amendment. Politicians and parents in these cities insisted that their schools could not possibly be segregated and decried the court-ordered desegregation remedies, such as “busing,” as unjust and inconvenient infringements on the rights of white families. Focusing on the feelings of white people rather than the rights of black students perpetuates myth that segregation in the North was innocent. We would not teach the history of civil rights in the South by focusing most of our attention on segregationists in Little Rock, Montgomery, or Selma, so why should we teach school desegregation in the North by focusing on segregationists in cities like Boston?

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