On This Day

Charlotte-Mecklenburg busing, charlotte school busing, desegregation busing
Warren K. Leffler/ Library of Congress U.S. News & World Report Collection
African-American and white school children ride a school bus from the suburbs to an inner city school in Charlotte in 1973.

On This Day: Supreme Court Upholds Desegregation School Busing

April 20, 2012 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 20, 1971, in the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in schools.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

In 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of schools was unconstitutional. However, many schools remained segregated due to the demographics of a city or town; children who lived in predominantly black neighborhoods still did not go to the same schools as white children, and vice versa.

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, 14,000 of the 24,000 black students attended schools that were at least 99 percent black. The NACCP challenged the Charlotte-Mecklenburg board in the mid-1960s and won the case in 1969 when Judge James B. McMillan ruled that the school district must use busing to achieve racial diversity in its schools.

Judge McMillan ordered the district to adopt a plan created by Dr. John Finger that called for the busing of black students from inner city Charlotte to suburban schools in Mecklenburg, as well as the busing of white students to the inner city. The white parents were outraged by the plan and the school district declared that it was too burdensome to implement. McMillan became a pariah in the area, as some busing opponents sent him death threats and burned him in effigy.

After an appeals court ruled against the Finger Plan for younger students, the case reached the Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision, with the opinion written by Chief Justice Warren Burger, the court upheld the use of busing as a “remedial technique” for achieving desegregation.

The New York Times summarized the court’s decision: “It is not enough for school officials to draw school attendance lines that appear to be racially neutral. Officials must foster integration by such affirmative measures as gerrymandering school boundaries to include both races, pairing ‘white’ and ‘Negro’ schools, and drawing school zones that combine noncontiguous areas in racially diverse neighborhoods.”

The court made a distinction between “de facto” segregation that arose naturally due to neighborhood demographics and segregation created by discriminatory policies implemented by the government and by the school system (for example, many school districts closed schools that would naturally have a racial balance and built new schools in the center of predominantly white or black neighborhoods). This distinction exempted most Northern school districts from having to impose busing.

Busing in the U.S.

Two years after the Swann decision, the Supreme Court made a second ruling that restricted the use of busing. In Milliken v. Bradley, which involved to the Detroit school system, the court ruled that students could only be bused across district lines if there was evidence that multiple districts had implemented deliberately discriminatory policies.

Many cities implemented busing programs in the 1970s and ‘80s, often meeting resistance among white parents. The most prominent example was in Boston, where a 1974 court decision to integrate the schools of predominantly black Roxbury and the working-class Irish neighborhood of South Boston led to violent protests in South Boston.

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