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

The Complexity of Black Views on “Busing”

“I think a black mother should be heard,” called out Inez Andry as she strode confidently to the microphone. Speaking before the San Francisco Board of Education in the crowded Nourse Auditorium and before a local television audience via San Francisco’s KPIX-TV, Andry interrupted the agenda of white mothers from Mothers Support Neighborhood Schools speaking against “busing.” “We don’t believe in busing either,” Andry told the board, to applause from the crowd. “Not for the same reason,” Andry continued. “We want our schools in our neighborhood. We don’t want to go to no other neighborhood. But we want education, the kind we need in our neighborhood. . . . We want to see all kinds of books. Black books. We want to be recognized. We don’t want integration, we’ll get that. We want education. And integration will not educate our black children. Black books, more black principals, some more black people on the school board, a black woman up there too.” After describing the school board’s integration plan as a “game of craps,” Andry told the board, “I don’t know how to speak like these other ladies, because I didn’t have that kind of education, and I don’t want my kids to get that kind.” “You don’t need it,” one of the young black men who flanked Andry responded. As a member of the Hayes Valley Schools Committee, Andry said, “two years we negotiated, we pleaded, we begged, I cried . . . and other people did it with me, but now is not the time for that, now is the time for fighting. . . . You want to keep your pretty little San Francisco pretty? Well you have to come with it. Because I want to live here and nobody’s not running me out. And I’m going to fight for what I want here. And I’m not going to fight alone, because I got many back of me. And if I die fighting, I’ll be dying for what I believe in.” The applause from the mostly white audience was more tepid as Andry concluded her speech. “If we can’t have these schools of our own and a board of education to go along with us, maybe it’s time to have our own board of education.”

In just over seven minutes, Andry articulated a series of concerns and demands that reflected the sentiments of many black parents across the country. Like Andry, many black parents wanted to see more black school board members, black principals, black teachers, and black history and culture included in the curriculum. Various currents of black thought—Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and grassroots educational traditions—fueled these calls for black community control of schools, and in each case, racial integration was not the horizon of educational equality or black freedom. While Andry had clearly formed opinions on the issue, “busing” did not fuel her political activity.

Andry therefore disrupted the February 1968 school board meeting not only by demanding an opportunity to speak but also by expanding beyond the “busing” frame preferred by media, school officials, and politicians. KPIX reporter Ben Williams opened the hour-long special by describing how the board was holding a special meeting to hear from citizens on the “feverishly controversial problem of school busing.” Before Andry took the microphone, school board president Edward Kemmitt apologized to Mothers Support Neighborhood Schools for deviating from the “antibusing” agenda. “I do feel badly on this. I had worked with these people. I recognized their problem. I had several phone conversations with these people. I was assured that this was going to be the agenda. . . . I personally do not like this . . . but if this is the way it’s going to go, I guess it’s the way it’s going to go.” KPIX reporter Rollin Post described Andry as making the proceedings more “complicated and exciting” and concluded by connecting the heated school board meeting in San Francisco to the battle over “busing” in Boston: “I think we also learned tonight how someone like Mrs. Hicks in Boston could rise to fame and fortune very quickly on an issue such as busing.” For San Francisco mayor Joseph Alioto, the lesson from the school board hearing was clear. “No one in the community, including a large segment of the Negro community, really wanted to bus school children,” he said. Inez Andry’s strenuous attempt to make sure that a black mother was heard and seen in San Francisco’s school battle and the efforts of media, school officials, and politicians to contain her comments as part of a “busing” debate illustrate at the local level a dynamic that played out nationally. Once the news media and politicians adopted “busing” as the dominant framework for discussing school desegregation, it became difficult for them to understand the diversity of black opinion on school desegregation or to recognize that “busing” was not the major issue for blacks that it was for whites who opposed school desegregation. Television news coverage of the southern civil rights movement informed the networks’ approach to “busing,” but this model proved poorly suited to the particular dynamics of the issue. On the one hand, “antibusing” activists appropriated the language and tactics of the civil rights movement rather than using explicitly racist language. On the other hand, the diversity of black opinion on “busing” made it difficult for broadcasters to present a single person or organization as representative of African American viewpoints, as they had with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the early 1960s.

Black politicians, activists, parents, and students articulated a wide range of views regarding “busing.” Black nationalists like Roy Innis, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, opposed “busing” in favor of providing the black community with greater control of their schools; U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, activist Jesse Jackson, and the NAACP offered vocal criticism of racism in “antibusing” protests and legislation, and more cautious support for “busing” as a policy; and black parents took up a range of positions, raising concerns about the quality of schools, the distance of bus rides, and the safety of black children bused to white neighborhoods.

Rather than adapting their coverage to present the multiple and often conflicting black opinions on “busing,” network newscasts structured their “busing” segments around white “antibusing” parents and politicians and presented black viewpoints as secondary. In Pontiac, for example, national broadcasts included a ten- to twenty-second sound bite from Pontiac NAACP chairman Elbert Hatchett or a black parent in a three- to four-minute segment that focused on Irene McCabe and the National Action Group. In Boston, violent protests outside white high schools received far more coverage than viewpoints of black students, parents, or activists. This dynamic played out in television news coverage of “busing” in cities across the country. While school desegregation was the dominant civil rights issue of the era, there were no specific black people associated with the “busing” story, no worthy black students like the Little Rock Nine to delineate who was on the right side of history. Black students, parents, and activists fought tirelessly for decades to improve the educational options in majority-black schools, but the “busing” frame pushed these efforts to the background in favor of white protests. Without identifying the black students whose rights were at stake in the battle over school desegregation, “busing” appeared to be, as its critics charged, an inconvenient, unnecessary, and unjust intrusion on white families. That many black parents, including Inez Andry, spoke against “busing” only served to entrench this perspective.

In surveying black views on "busing" in black newspapers as well as reports and commentary from black activists, parents, politicians, teachers, and students, three broad themes emerge. First, rather than accepting “busing” as the logical frame for debating school desegregation, black people argued that white opposition to “busing” was simply a new way of expressing antiblack racism, that “busing” was a phony issue which obscured the causes of educational inequality, and that “busing” had long been used to maintain segregated schools. Second, school desegregation plans frequently led to negative outcomes for black students and teachers, such as the closure of formerly black schools and the loss of employment for black teachers. Third, black students in recently desegregated schools were disproportionately suspended and pushed out of school. Each of these themes illuminates why black communities were often ambivalent to “busing.” The various responses and alternatives black people offered were largely ignored by white media and politicians, who instead focused on more adamantly “antibusing” black viewpoints, such as the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, or Clay Smothers, who called himself “the most conservative black man in America” and appeared at “antibusing” rallies across the country. Like the San Francisco school officials and reporters who tried to contain Inez Andry’s wide-ranging critique of educational inequality, national media and politicians preferred black voices that did not disrupt the predetermined “busing” frame. Many black parents would have concurred with Andry’s comment, “We don’t believe in busing either,” but for them too, the reasons were complicated.

“It's not the bus, it’s us”
The aphorism “It’s not the bus, it’s us” served as a shorthand way for the black community to affirm that the “busing” debate was actually about antiblack racism. Speaking at Ohio State University in April 1972, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) cofounder and Georgia state legislator Julian Bond described the underlying motivations for opposing “busing” for school desegregation in clear terms. “What people who oppose busing object to,” Bond told the audience, “is not the little yellow school buses, but rather to the little black bodies that are on the bus.” The following month, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund used a similar formulation as a title to a report, “It’s Not the Distance, ‘It’s the Niggers,’” condemning President Nixon’s call for a moratorium on “busing” orders and refuting the president’s claims about “busing.” “The proposed moratorium on busing threatens gains which have been made in the long and painful struggle to fulfill the constitutional rights of children to equal education opportunities,” the report read. “These proposals, which would curtail only one kind of busing—busing to desegregate schools—and not any other kind of pupil transportation, barely camouflage their racist motivation.” 

Like Bond and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, black politicians and journalists dedicated a great deal of energy to exposing the underlying racism of “antibusing” measures. After New York’s legislature approved the Lent-Kunzeman “neighborhood schools” bill prohibiting “busing” in 1969, Assemblyman Arthur Eve described the bill as the “worst kind of racism and very dangerous. It is hard for me to believe that I am standing in the chamber of the Assembly of the Empire State and not Alabama or South Africa.” For Los Angeles Sentinel columnist Stanley Robertson, “busing” made it clear that racism was not exclusively southern. “The year 1971 was the one during which bussing came to the North,” Robertson wrote, “and suddenly the country discovered that there were a lot of Archie Bunkers who lived outside of Birmingham, Jackson and Lake Charles—lived in such sedate and supposedly discrimination-free areas as San Francisco, Forrest Hills and Boston.” National Urban League president Vernon Jordan struck a similar tone, drawing parallels between northern and southern racism. The “busing” controversy, he argued, was a “northernized” version of the southern resistance to desegregation in the 1950s. “I see little difference between the agitators who stood in front of public schools in Little Rock and New Orleans fifteen years ago and the distorted faces and hate-filled words of white parents in Canarsie a few weeks ago.” Writing in the Chicago Defender, Frank Stanley described the “furor” over “busing” as “baffling.” “Pure and simple, it’s the old issue of white supremacy fanned to a red heat again under the egis of busing,” Stanley wrote.

Black critics described “busing” as an early example of “dog whistle” politics, where racist sentiments were repackaged in coded language. Following President Nixon’s first major statement on school desegregation in 1970, U.S. congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said, “Nixon’s statement this week was veiled in a dense fog of vague, fine sounding phrases. But it was also larded with code words like ‘neighborhood school’ and references to school busing that made it easy for southern segregationists to understand what it means. Nixon is paying off another installment of his 1968 debt to Dixie, and trying to store up credit for 1972.” Whitney Young, who preceded Jordan as president of the National Urban League, also saw coded appeals to racism at play in the “busing” debate. In an open letter to Jim Crow, Young wrote, “Part of the reason you came back in the schools is the phony smokescreen raised about integration. Code words like ‘bussing’ were much nicer to use than the straight out ‘keep the schools white,’ your supporters once used.” In an editorial on the eve of the 1972 election, the Norfolk Journal and Guide argued that black voters should oppose Nixon and his use of “code phrases.” “The busing issue is one of the most divisive forces in America today,” the editors argued. “It is an emotional issue that has been given respectability through such phrases as ‘forced busing’ and ‘neighborhood schools.’ Seemingly lost is the fact that ‘neighborhood schools’ actually mean segregated schools.”

While “busing” spoke to deeply entrenched antiblack prejudice, the focus on “busing” by white media and politicians masked the legal issues at play in school desegregation cases. “White Americans must understand that busing is a phony issue,” Vernon Jordan said in comments that were replayed on the black public affairs television show Black Journal. “The real issue is the Constitutional rights of black people. The issue is so lethal that it is bound to seep outwards and poison the moral climate of our nation. Busing constitutes a ‘domestic Vietnam.’ It is the responsibility of white Americans to act now or face the probability of looking back a decade hence at a nation embracing full apartheid.” The ten black lawyers who resigned from the Justice Department in protest over President Nixon’s call for a moratorium on “busing” for school desegregation wrote a letter to the Washington Post in which they argued that “busing” clouded which and whose rights were at stake. “Busing is not a real issue; it is instead a sham,” the lawyers wrote. “We as ardent students of the civil rights struggle, have concluded that the recent fervor in the area of busing is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to sacrifice the rights of minority children to racist pressure groups and political expedience. . . . What we have been witnessing, when stripped of its shroud of innocence, is an attempted roll-back, a camouflaged effort to resurrect the concept of ‘separate but equal,’ and a deliberate effort to make the advancement of desegregation circular, beginning and ending with Plessy v. Ferguson.” In the heat of Boston’s “busing crisis,” the NAACP took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with the heading “The Law vs. the Mob”: “The issue in Boston today is not whether ‘busing’ is good or bad; it is whether this nation’s Constitution and laws are to be upheld and enforced or flagrantly violated. . . . The black parents of Boston don’t enjoy sending their children out to face the mob any more than the black parents of Little Rock, New Orleans, Birmingham, Selma or Montgomery. But they know what happens when the mob makes the laws.”

School Closures and Job Loses
In many cases, school officials created desegregation plans that called for the closure of formerly black schools. The closure of black schools meant the loss of names, traditions, and mascots that had deep meanings for black communities. In Wake Forest, North Carolina, for example, black students who attended W.E.B. DuBois High School were transferred to historically white Wake Forest High School, and the DuBois High School building became Wake Forest–Rolesville Middle School. Similarly, in Louisiana school officials painted over murals of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver at recently desegregated and renamed schools. The Journal and Guide noted that school closures were part of a larger burden of school desegregation that too often fell on black communities. “Somewhere in school desegregation, an effort should be made to accommodate Negro children and their parents,” the editors argued. “In too many cases the burden of change has been deliberately placed on Negro families many of whom are least able financially and otherwise to accept the responsibility.”

Black school closures also meant job loses and demotions for black administrators and teachers. For example, of 170 black high school principals in Virginia in 1965, only 16 were in the same position in 1970, and similar demotions took place in other southern states. Many black teachers, both in the South and in other parts of the country, also lost their jobs as a result of school desegregation. Barbara Sizemore, district superintendent of the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project in Chicago, viewed the Supreme Court’s 1971 Swann ruling from the perspective of black educators. “The models for desegregation have consistently displaced and plunged blacks into unemployment,” Sizemore argued. “With no protection for the black incumbent educators, this will cause a great void . . . in the ranks of employed black professionals.” National Urban League president Vernon Jordan argued that the loss of teaching jobs would have a broad impact on black communities. Rather than talking only about the “phony issue of busing,” Jordan suggested, “it is time now to turn the spotlight on the widespread discriminatory practices that have turned surface integration into a sham, harming black children and black educators, as well as the black economy.” These concerns were well founded, because over thirty thousand black teachers were displaced by school desegregation in southern states. An HEW survey of five southern states found that from 1968 to 1971, five thousand white teachers were hired while over one thousand black teachers lost their jobs.

Suspended and Pushed Out
The firing and demotion of thousands of black teachers and principals directly affected black students who desegregated white schools. In their 1973 article on the significant job loses that black educators encountered, scholars John Smith and Betty Smith warned, “The future offers the ghastly specter of black children totally at the mercy of a white-dominated school system.” For many black students, “busing” and desegregation meant leaving their communities to travel to schools where white students and parents were openly hostile and where white teachers and administrators blamed them for the whatever violence or disruptions accompanied desegregation in the schools. While “antibusing” protests dominated media coverage and dampened black enthusiasm for “busing,” school suspensions and “pushouts” in recently desegregated schools represented a larger threat to black students.

In the early and mid-1970s, the Southern Regional Council and the Children’s Defense Fund published reports revealing that black students across the country were being suspended, expelled, and pushed out of recently desegregated schools at alarming rates. During the 1972–73 school year, for example, one in eight black students was suspended at least once, double the rate of white student suspensions. Office of Civil Rights (OCR) director Peter Holmes testified to the Subcommittee on Equal Opportunities of the Committee on Education and Labor in the House of Representatives that black students were suspended at rates disproportionate to their enrollment in nineteen of the twenty cities that his office had reviewed, including New York, Houston, Cleveland, Memphis, and Dallas. “Just a cursory examination of our data suggests the probability of widespread discrimination in the application of disciplinary sanctions,” Holmes said. “In some cases, teachers were trigger-happy with suspensions after desegregation,” a southern school administrator admitted to a Children’s Defense Fund interviewer.

School suspensions hindered black students’ success and, in some cases, pushed them out of school permanently. The Southern Regional Council, which published The Student Pushout: Victim of Continued Resistance to Desegregation, encouraged policymakers to see black student “dropouts” from newly desegregated schools as “pushouts.” Black students, the council argued, frequently encountered white teachers, administrators, and students who were not yet ready for desegregated schools. Peter Holmes at the Office of Civil Rights argued that these racially discriminatory disciplinary practices, in addition to being unfair, would lead to “the eventual erosion of confidence of many thousands of minority youth in the purposes of education so that the American school becomes for them less a means to personal achievement than a symbol of injustice.”

The problem of school suspensions also affected recently desegregated schools outside the South, in cities like Boston. A black teacher at South Boston High School attested to this in an affidavit filed in 1975 seeking further relief in Morgan v. Kerrigan. “When an incident of apparent racial strife occurs, some white teachers see the black student as the original aggressor and as the source of the continuing threat to school order, even when neither perception is true,” the teacher reported. “I have observed, for example, a white teacher challenge the possession by a black student of a ‘pick’—a style of Afro comb used by many black students for grooming purposes. The teacher’s attempt to confiscate the comb resulted in resistance by the student and a confrontation.” A member of the Citywide Coordinating Council assigned to monitor the implementation of Boston’s desegregation order described in detail the connection between suspensions and resistance to “busing” for school desegregation:

I have closely observed the Boston public school system since my arrival in 1973, including the reaction of the system to desegregation efforts in 1974–1975. I have become aware of tremendous disparities in the rates of suspension between black and white students in the Boston public school system. Based on professional work, it is my professional opinion that the root cause of such disparities is the disbelief in, and disrespect for, the findings of Judge Garrity as to the history of racial discrimination in the Boston public schools, that this disbelief and disrespect pervade the entire structure of the Boston public schools, under the active leadership of the Boston School Committee, and are reinforced by those aspects of the wider Boston community with whom members of the Boston public schools identify. This climate and milieu within which teachers and administrators function bear directly on the racial disparity in suspensions, for the entire system is saturated by hostility to the court’s desegregation order and to the black students who are perceived as having caused the order.

During the 1974–75 school year, Boston school officials suspended 5,076 black students and 3,367 white students. This rate of suspension could have occurred by chance less than one in one billion times.

Any attempt to understand what “busing” meant to black communities has to recognize that “busing” and school desegregation plans frequently led to negative outcomes for black students, parents, and educators. School closures, job loses for black teachers and principals, and a high rate of suspensions in recently desegregated schools all contributed to the ambivalence black people felt about “busing.” These viewpoints, however, rarely made it into national television news reports or white magazines and newspapers. Instead, these media outlets focused their attention on black voices that fit more neatly within the prescribed “busing” framework.

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