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

The Origins of Antibusing Politics in 1950s New York

"There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South." 
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking to Urban League of New York City, 1960

While most people associate "busing" with Boston in the mid-1970s, the battles over "busing" first emerged in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Like in Montgomery and Jackson, many New York politicians and citizens did not want the Brown decision to come to their schools. Black parents and civil rights advocates, including Ella Baker, Kenneth Clark, and Reverend Milton Galamison, thought otherwise and pressed for desegregation plans in the city. Indeed, the largest civil rights demonstration of the era occurred in New York in February 1964, when more than 460,000 students and teachers stayed out of school to protest the lack of a comprehensive plan for desegregation. White resistance grew as well, with white parents and politicians first objecting to rumored plans to bus students between Harlem and Staten Island and then organizing rallies to oppose plans to transfer students between predominantly black and Puerto Rican schools and white schools. These white protests attracted national attention from the news media and from the United States congressmen who were debating the Civil Rights Act in the spring of 1964.

In the months before the Brown decision, Dr. Kenneth Clark, Ella Baker, and other members of the Intergroup Committee on New York’s Public Schools, worked to make school segregation in New York an issue that school officials and politicians could no longer ignore. “To focus public attention on the fact of de facto segregated schools in New York City [was] an important goal,” Clark said, “because we felt that the people of New York City were not aware of public school segregation as an issue which faced the city itself.” The New York Amsterdam News, one of the city’s leading black newspapers, continued to press the issue in the summer and fall of 1954, encouraging the PEA to conduct a “real study and not a whitewash” and reminding school officials that they were “duty bound to see to it that educational services and facilities in no community fall below those in any other community.” The Amsterdam News also ran an editorial cartoon titled “Siamese Twins” that featured two figures wearing academic caps and gowns, joined at the hip, labeled “New York City’s School System” and “The South’s Jimcro [sic] tradition.” For their part, school officials remained cautious about the legal ramifications of school segregation receiving wider attention. School Superintendent William Jansen directed his staff to use words like “separation” or “racial imbalance,” rather than “segregation,” in relation to New York’s schools. Still, pressure from civil rights advocates encouraged the school board to make modest recommendations to make zoning decisions in a way that would promote racial integration.

It was here that the terms zoning and busing first appeared in news reports, public hearings, and rumors as a way to describe and discourage school desegregation. The Wall Street Journal was the first major newspaper to sound alarms over School Board’s zoning plan. After describing two hundred black children who were bused to PS 93 in the Bronx, journalist Peter Bart warned, “This is only the beginning. A ‘master plan’ to speed up the integration process for New York’s 925,000 public school pupils has been drawn up by the subcommittee on zoning of the Board’s Commission on Integration. If approved, the plan will take effect next September. It proposes extensive use of city-financed buses to create racially balanced schools and suggests that racial integration should be the sole objective of school zoning.” Describing what he called an “enforced mass migration of school children,” Bart alerted readers that white children were already being “bused”: “Hundreds of New York students are already criss-crossing the city by bus and subway to schools far from home. . . . Not only are children from Negro sections of Harlem traveling to hitherto all-white schools; in some instances, white pupils are crossing regular school zones to enter all-Negro schools.” The Associated Press also picked up the story in spring 1957, noting that “five words: ‘Selective use of bus transportation’” had sparked “fiery protests” in New York. While the AP’s report was less alarmist than the Wall Street Journal, the AP story made clear the national implications of the New York case: “The nation’s biggest city has gone beyond legal requirements that all races be admitted to schools on an equal basis, and is taking additional direct action to foster interracial student bodies. The move could set a trend.” In addition to these news reports, white residents in East Queens and other neighborhoods received reprints, sent anonymously, of pamphlets such as “The Ugly Truth about the NAACP” and “The Red Hand in New York Schools,” which attacked the NAACP and school integration as communist. These publications stoked existing fears in the white community and fueled rumors that the school board was calling for extensive cross-city “busing” for school desegregation.

In their letters to the board of education, many parents were unambiguous in listing the reasons they feared and opposed school desegregation. One father asked, “Do you gentleman honestly believe that you can then ship our children back to some slum school . . . to spend their lunch hours in streets that are civic cesspools . . . without a fight on your hands? An “Irate Parent” framed opposition in the language of homeowners’ rights: “Do you think that I and so many others like me moved to this neighborhood so that our [children] would be uprooted and have to travel to a place at an uncomfortable distance! The racism in other letters was explicit. “The Negro is emerging from ignorance, savagery, disease and total lack of any culture,” one letter stated. “Is it necessary to foist the Negro on the White Americans for fair play? Another letter simply said, “We don’t want our children integrated with Blacks.”38 These letters offer a snapshot of the feelings that underscored opposition to school desegregation and suggest how, in the privacy of homes and neighborhood spaces, such sentiments propelled rumors that “busing” was imminent.

Well aware of the growing public sentiment on desegregation, Superintendent Jensen and his colleagues held public meetings in white neighborhoods and issued statements to newspapers in an attempt to quell these widespread “busing” rumors. “We have no intention whatsoever of long-distance bussing or bussing of children simply because of their color,” Jansen told the New York Times in response to a report on the more than two thousand letters the board of education had received criticizing the integration plan.39 “These rumors are completely false,” Jansen later said to a gathering of seven hundred parents, teachers, and principals in Queens. “No such action is planned.” True to his word, Jansen’s report on zoning, issued in July 1957, reflected the concerns of parents who had rallied against the potential of “busing.” The report identified “the neighborhood school concept” as the heart of the school’s zoning policy and stated, “Pupils should not be transported by bus from one school to another solely for the purpose of integration.” Jensen also reasserted that the issue of school segregation was largely beyond the control of the school board: “The homogenous character of some school neighborhoods is an effect of segregated residential patterns, a condition which the schools cannot deal with directly.” While Jansen’s report may have placated the desires of white parents and teachers, it drew the ire of Commission on Integration members like Ella Baker who worked on the preliminary zoning report. “There is a unanimous revolt of the Integration Commission against Dr. Jansen’s position,” Kenneth Clark told the New York Times. “We feel that the Superintendent is deliberately confusing, delaying, distorting, and sidetracking the reports of our commission. He is no more likely to implement our reports than he was two years ago. . . . The people of the city will not tolerate this sabotage.”

Clark was frustrated not only that Jansen had delayed and watered down the zoning report but that “busing” came to dominate the public discussion over school desegregation in New York. Clark argued that the Commission on Integration’s zoning report,

became the basis for a tremendous amount of local and national distortion. Before we knew it, it was rumored that this subcommittee was recommending that children from all white neighborhoods should be taken by bus to schools in the heart of Negro ghettoes. It was even stated children would be brought from Staten Island to attend schools in Harlem. Those of us who had worked for two years with the Commission on Integration, and who were in constant touch with the activities of each subcommittee, were first shocked and then alarmed at what we were reading in some areas of the press. It was not long before we became aware of the fact that these distortions and rumors were not accidental. They seemed to have been planted and they received wide circulation throughout the city and the nation. . . . Systematic study of the report on zoning revealed that at no place in the report is there a suggestion that young children be “bussed” any considerable distance in order to facilitate integration. . . . I should like to add one other fact not found in this report: namely, there were until last year instances in which buses were used by the Board of Education to transport white children away from a near Negro school to a more distant non-Negro school. It is fascinating, in the observation of this whole process, to note that there were no national press alarms about this fact.

Writing in 1958, Clark identified how making “busing” the frame for the debate could derail school desegregation. In addition to eliding the earlier use of buses to transport students to maintain segregated schools, “busing” made school desegregation less about the constitutional rights of black children and more about the desires and fears of white parents. Fears of “busing” in New York outpaced the numerical reality of students transferred for school desegregation, a pattern that would be repeated nationally. Focusing on “busing” also gave equal weight to black protests against segregated schools and white protests to maintain these segregated conditions.

Superintendent Jansen, for example, described integration and “busing” as issues that had “stirred extremists on both sides,” some who wanted to “build Rome in a day” and others who “resist every step.” Jansen’s framing of the “busing” issue borrowed from President Dwight Eisenhower, who answered a question regarding violence against school integration in Clinton (Tennessee), Mansfield (Texas), and Sturgis (Kentucky) by comparing “extremists” who “are so filled with prejudice that they even resort to violence” with those “on the other side . . . who want to have the whole matter settled today.” (President Richard Nixon expressed a similar sentiment in 1969, arguing for a “middle course” on school desegregation between “two extreme groups . . . those who want instant integration and those who want segregation forever.”) Like Eisenhower before him and Nixon after him, Jansen’s use of “extremists on both sides” allowed him to present official inaction as a fair middle ground rather than as the maintenance of an educational status quo that benefited white students and harmed black students. Instead of seeing school desegregation as an issue that necessarily involved changing structures of racial discrimination, “busing” enabled parents, school officials, politicians, and the media to frame the story around the preferences and demands of white parents.

In the summer and fall of 1959, white parents in the Glendale-Ridgewood section of Queens organized to protest the transfer of four hundred black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded elementary schools in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Days after the board announced the transfer, the Glendale-Ridgewood parents marched outside City Hall on a rainy morning, carrying signs reading “Neighborhood schools for all,” “Bussing creates fussing,” “We have Just Begun to Fight,” and “When We Are Right We Fight.” A small group of black mothers and children held a counter protest​, with signs reading “This is N.Y.C. Not Little Rock” and “Are these the ‘J.D.s’ [juvenile delinquents] that Glendale fears? After trying unsuccessfully to sue the Board of Education to block the transfer, the Glendale parents organized a one-day school boycott that kept over 40 percent of white students home. While these protests did not thwart the transfer plan, the students bused into Glendale faced racial harassment. Students found the message “Blacks Go Home” scrawled on the front and side of one Queens elementary school. At another elementary school, the principal ordered all of the black students to be searched for weapons, based on rumors circulating among white parents.

The school board also fanned rumors in white neighborhoods that an open enrollment policy would lead to citywide “busing.” New York school superintendent Dr. Calvin Gross, responded to a 1963 sit-in protest at the Board of education headquarters by describing Reverend Milton Galamison and the two dozen other demonstrators as “extremists” who want “instant racial balances.” “The things they apparently want,” Gross continued, “can only be achieved by the involuntary bussing of children over a long distance.” “‘Busing’ is not the issue,” the NAACP’s June Shagaloff argued, “but it has been used and misused to justify the status-quo of school segregation. It has been used and misused to cloak the basic question: What plan can most effectively achieve meaningful desegregation throughout the city? By 1964, the black community’s frustration with the glacial pace of change in the schools led to a boycott that was the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the United States. Led by Galamison and organized by Bayard Rustin, the civil rights stalwart who organized the 1963 March on Washington, D.C., over four hundred and sixty thousand students stayed out of school on February 3, 1964. Groups of students, parents, and some teachers marched in front of three hundred schools and in front of the Board of Education headquarters, chanting, “Jim Crow must go” and singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The New York Times, which had supported modest zoning changes for school desegregation, described the boycott as a “violent, illegal approach of adult-encouraged truancy.” The Times raised the specter of “busing” to explain why the civil rights demands were “unreasonable and unjustified.” “Given the pattern of residence in New York City, the Board of Education can do just so much to lessen imbalance in the schools,” the editorial argued. “To ask more is to ignore the facts and figures of school population and pupil distribution. You can bus children just so far. You can hire bus drivers when you ought to be hiring teachers. You can put children into buses for an hour and a half or more each day—as the board plans to do for some—but what do they learn in the bus? The Times’ position sounded strikingly similar to James Donovan, president of the New York City School Board, who a month earlier said, “Everyone in the City of New York has rights . . . and there is [sic] simply limits of feasibility that arise. . . . You simply cannot put one million children on wheels and send them all over the city of New York.” Donovan wildly overstated the number of children who would have been reassigned to desegregate New York’s schools. New York in 1964 was transporting annually fewer than ten thousand students, mostly black and Puerto Rican children, through open enrollment and programs to aid integration and lessen overcrowding. Even a tenfold increase in this number would still have been only 10 percent of Donovan’s “one million children” figure. Opposition to “busing,” of course, was never really tied to empirical evidence. The Times, like Donovan and “antibusing” parents and politicians, argued from a gut belief that “busing” for school desegregation was unrealistic.

Among those influenced by the grassroots civil rights protests were Parents and Taxpayers (PAT), a coalition of white neighborhood groups who organized protest marches and a boycott against zoning changes and school desegregation in 1964. On a snowy March day in 1964, over ten thousand white parents walked from the Board of Education Building in Brooklyn to city hall in Manhattan to protest against school desegregation in New York City. Carrying signs reading, “We oppose voluntary transfers,” “Keep our children in neighborhood schools,” “I will not put my children on a bus,” and “We will not be bused,” the marchers called their coalition of local organizations “Parents and Taxpayers.” They hoped to persuade the school board to abandon a school pairing plan that called for students to be transferred between predominantly black and Puerto Rican schools and white schools. “Most of the demonstrators were taking their case into the streets for the first time,” the New York Times reported, noting that more than 70 percent of the demonstrators were women. “For every mother who’s here, there’s another one sitting at home with both her children, wishing she could be here,” said Joan Adabo, a mother from Jackson Heights, Queens. While the protestors sought to influence policy at the city level, television news captured the scope of the march for a national audience. On NBC and ABC, rooftop camera shots showed a long line of protestors snaking through the wet streets of the city, while another camera angle depicted marchers, ten abreast, emerging from the fog as they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. A street-level shot panned down to capture the marchers’ reflection in the curbside puddles, an artistic image emphasizing that the protestors braved inclement weather to be heard and seen. Television news, as well as newspaper coverage and photographs, gave the protestors national visibility. One mother spoke frankly to an NBC reporter about why Parents and Taxpayers opted for a public protest march: “We feel like we can prove as much as our opponents to use the same tactics. We have as much right as they do. These are our civil rights and we’re taking advantage of them.” Perhaps no one took more notice of the white “antibusing” march than the legislators who were debating the Civil Rights Act in the spring of 1964, where several United States senators mentioned the New York protest.

New York continued to play a leading role in “antibusing” politics for the next several years. Parents and Taxpayers paid a political lobbyist in Albany to encourage state legislators to pass regulations prohibiting “busing” for school desegregation in the state, and politicians proposed such legislation every year from 1964 to 1969. In 1969, an “antibusing” bill sponsored by state senators Norman Lent of Long Island and Joseph Kunzeman of Queens passed the New York House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, before being found unconstitutional by a federal court the following year. The Lent-Kunzeman “neighborhood schools” bill generated national interest among integration opponents and became a model for similar “freedom of choice” school legislation in several southern states, including Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Alabama. New York’s “antibusing” bill also influenced U.S. senator John Stennis of Mississippi, who in 1970 introduced an amendment calling for a uniform national school desegregation policy, with the hope of sparking more national opposition to “busing” and desegregation. As a U.S. congressman representing Long Island in 1972, Lent proposed a highly publicized constitutional amendment, H.J. Res. 620, to bar “busing.”

In explaining the series of protests for and against civil rights in New York, Senator Jacob Javits told his colleagues, “New York is a great center of communications, and when people demonstrate in New York, they are not demonstrating for the New York Senators alone. It is fair to say that they are demonstrating for the Nation and the world.” As Javits understood, parents in New York were engaged in neighborhood battles with implications that reached well beyond New York. New York’s fights over “busing” were both intensely local disputes that contested neighborhood boundaries on a block-by-block basis and national disputes that shaped the ways school desegregation would be debated and defeated for years to come.

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