The 1970s: Swann And Busing
In SWANN V. CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG BOARD OF EDUCATION, 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed. 2d 554 (1971), the focus of school desegregation shifted from largely rural school districts to urban ones, a change of scene that offered new challenges to desegregation. In the rural South before the Brown decision, blacks and whites lived largely in the same communities or areas, and requiring that their children attend the same neighborhood schools could resolve segregation. In urban settings, however, blacks and whites lived in different neighborhoods, so combining the two races in the same schools meant transporting children, usually by bus, to institutions that were often far from their homes.
In Swann, the Court took the final step toward making busing a part of school desegregation plans, by giving the lower courts power to impose it as a means for achieving integration. Swann involved the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District, in North Carolina, a district in which African Americans made up 29 percent of the student body. After the Supreme Court's decision in Green, a federal district judge ruled that the school district had not achieved adequate levels of integration: 14,000 of the 24,000 African–American students still attended schools that were all black, and most of the 24,000 did not have any white teachers. The judge called for the adoption of a desegregation plan that involved busing 13,300 additional children at an initial start-up cost of over $1 million.
The Supreme Court upheld the district court's plans. Just as in Brown II, it gave school authorities and district judges primary responsibility for school desegregation. This time, however, the Court provided more guidance. To create desegregated schools, it encouraged faculty reassignment; the redrawing of school attendance zones; and an optional, publicly funded transfer program for minority students. Most important, the Court recommended mandatory busing to achieve desegregation. It did note that busing could be excessive when it involved especially great distances. It also hinted at an end to court-imposed desegregation plans, saying, "Neither school authorities nor district courts are constitutionally required to make year-by-year adjustments of the racial composition of student bodies" (Brown II). In Court decisions decades later, these words would be cited in support of ending court-supervised school desegregation programs.
As a result of Swann, throughout the 1970s, courts ordered busing to achieve desegregation in many city school districts, including Boston, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles. However, Swann was one of the last desegregation opinions in which all nine justices were in complete agreement. The Court's unanimity on the issue of school desegregation, which had been the rule in every decision since Brown, broke down in the next major case, Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717, 94 S. Ct. 3112, 41 L. Ed. 2d 1069 (1974).
Milliken shifted the scene of school desegregation from the South to the North—specifically, to Detroit. In Milliken, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether courts could bus suburban pupils to desegregate inner-city schools. The case dealt with federal district judge Stephen Roth's decision to join the Detroit School District with 53 of the city's 85 outlying suburbs in a desegregation decree. The proposed plan would have created a metropolitan school district with 780,000 students, of which 310,000 would be bused daily to achieve desegregation goals. The shocked white community, much like others in the South, and its elected representatives denounced the plan.
Detroit reflected the situation of many U.S. cities. Although African Americans made up only 23 percent of the city's population in 1970, they constituted 61 percent of its school-age population. Whites were underrepresented in the inner-city public schools for various reasons. Young white married couples, who constituted the demographic group most likely to have school-age children, were also the most likely to move to the suburbs. The whites who did live in the cities tended to be older people, singles, and childless couples. Urban whites who did have school-age children often sent them to private schools.
Such a situation caused Judge Roth to ask the question, "How do you desegregate a black city, or a black school system?" (Milliken). Busing within city limits alone would still leave many schools 75 to 90 percent black. The only solution was one that took into consideration the entire metropolitan area of Detroit by joining the city school district with the surrounding suburban school districts.
In support of this position, Judge Roth argued that a variety of causes had led to the concentration of blacks in ghettos. Governments, he wrote in his opinion, "at all levels, federal, state and local, have combined, with … private organizations, such as loaning institutions and real estate associations and brokerage firms, to establish … residential segregation throughout the Detroit metropolitan area" (Bradley). Residential segregation had resulted from a whole variety of types of discrimination that caused African Americans and members of other minorities to live in segregated neighborhoods and, as a result, attend segregated schools. Thus, Roth framed his metropolitan school desegregation plan as a remedy for past discriminatory conduct.
Judge Roth's plan promised to promote class as well as racial interaction, complicating still further the issue of desegregation. Mixing of the different classes of U.S. society became as much a goal of desegregation decrees as did mixing of different races. Such a plan, its proponents argued, might also remedy the funding inequities between different school districts and even end white flight.
In 1974, by a vote of 5–4, the Supreme Court ruled in Milliken that Judge Roth had wrongly included the suburbs with the city in his desegregation decree. The district court's plan, the Court held, could only be justified if de jure segregation existed in outlying suburbs; remedies to past discriminatory conduct must be limited to Detroit, since it was the only district that had such policies. Disagreeing with Roth, the Court also held that state housing practices were not relevant to the case. Writing the Court's opinion, Chief Justice WARREN E. BURGER argued for local control of school districts, over court control: "No single tradition in public education is more deeply rooted than local control over the operation of schools; local autonomy has long been thought
essential both to the maintenance of community concern and support for public schools and to the quality of the educational process."
Many saw the Milliken decision as the first Supreme Court defeat for the cause of school desegregation. Some, including Justice Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Court, interpreted Milliken as an abandonment of the cause of racial justice. "Today's holding, …" Marshall wrote in his dissenting opinion, "is more a reflection of a perceived public mood that we have gone far enough in enforcing the Constitution's guarantee of equal justice than it is the product of neutral principles of law." Supporters of the decision, on the other hand, pointed to the myriad potential problems a plan like Roth's might impose, including greater bureaucratic red tape, more white flight, and even greater racial tensions.
- School Desegregation - The Busing Debate
- School Desegregation - 1954â€“1970: School Desegregation After Brown
- Other Free Encyclopedias
Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Roberts v. United States Jaycees to Secretary of StateSchool Desegregation - 1954â€“1970: School Desegregation After Brown, The 1970s: Swann And Busing, The Busing Debate