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Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

Supreme Court Upholds School Busing

The district court's plan proved to be highly controversial. So did the Supreme Court opinion upholding this plan. Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Burger gave qualified endorsement to the 71-29 white-to-black ratio required by the district court plan:

If we were to read the holding of the District Court to require, as a matter of substantive constitutional right, any particular degree of racial balance or mixing, that approach would be disapproved and we would be obliged to reverse. The constitutional command to desegregate schools does not mean that every school in every community must always reflect the racial composition of the school system as a whole . . . We see [however] that the use made of mathematical ratios was no more than a starting point in the process of shaping a remedy, rather than an inflexible requirement.

The district court found that the only way to approach the ideal was to bus students, and the Supreme Court agreed--again in a less than straightforward fashion: "In these circumstances, we find no basis for holding that the local school authorities may not be required to employ bus transportation as one tool of school desegregation. Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school."

At the time the Court handed down the Swann decision, school segregation had long been a stubborn problem. It would continue to be so, in part because of the less than ringing endorsement the High Court gave court-supervised plans in Swann. Court-imposed busing proved to be highly unpopular, especially in the North. In the 1970s, the Court did little to promote desegregation remedies, and in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), it actually overruled a district court order that would have merged three school districts to eliminate segregation in one. Two years later, the Court's reluctance to enforce desegregation plans was made even clearer in Pasadena Board of Education v. Spangler (1976). Because racial imbalances in the Pasadena public school systems were not the result of intentionally segregationist policies, the Court reasoned, there was no obligation to remedy the situation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education - Significance, Supreme Court Upholds School Busing, Further Readings