There Is Nothing Accidental About School Segregation

In his new book, Matt Delmont shows how controversies over “forced busing” allowed racist school policies in the North to persist.

Black students board a school bus in Massachusetts.
Some rioted, some marched, and some quietly altered their suburban zoning codes. Above, students in Massachusetts board an elementary school–bound bus in 1965. Hal Sweeney/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, most of America’s schools remain segregated. This condition afflicts educational systems in the North and the South, in the Southwestern border states, and the Northeast Corridor. In the decades after the famed 1957 standoff over school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, affirmative steps were taken to integrate public schools across America. But these reforms faced massive resistance, and not only from segregationist demagogues like George Wallace. White Americans in cities and suburbs across the Northern states fought to keep their children out of schools with black students, often by denouncing what they called “forced busing.” Some rioted, some marched, and some quietly altered their suburban zoning codes.

In his new book Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, Arizona State University history professor Matt Delmont looks at the politics of confrontations over school desegregation and how the media covered these stories from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Unlike the coverage of the campaigns against the South’s Jim Crow policies, Delmont writes that journalists “did not present civil rights activity in the north with such moral clarity.” Instead, white reactionary protesters opposed to “forced busing” won the majority of camera time and newspaper ink.

Delmont argues persuasively that “busing”—a term he always employs in quotation marks—was a false issue. The number of children transported to school by bus had been increasing steadily for decades before Brown vs. Board of Education, often as a means to enforce segregation. (The plaintiff in Brown was bused 20 miles to a majority-black school despite the majority-white school four blocks from her home.) In Boston, 85 percent of high school students were bused before school integration efforts began. Only when the form of transportation became associated with desegregation did some parents object to it and heap praise on “neighborhood schools.”

The substance of anti-busing arguments often hinged on the idea that the students in a particular community shouldn’t be driven “into very strange neighborhoods” to attend school, as the prominent anti-busing politician Louise Day Hicks put it. It is her home city of Boston where the clash over school desegregation outside the South received the most attention, resulting in months of intensive coverage.

I recently spoke with Delmont, whose book provides needed insight into a controversy that is still being misread. It’s especially valuable as school districts like North Carolina’s Charlotte–Mecklenburg are contemplating desegregation strategies of their own. Perhaps with the aid of Delmont and others who have been examining the history and future of school desegregation, we can better understand the issue and its moral consequences this time around. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jake Blumgart: Throughout the book you quote black activists or politicians who argue that busing is just a nice term for opposition to integrating our public schools. Why did the media fall so hard for the rhetoric of anti-integration activists in the 1960s and 1970s?

Matt Delmont: For two reasons. They had a very limited understanding of what was going on with civil rights in the North. Looking back at their coverage and how reporters talked about history afterward, they consistently thought of civil rights as a Southern story. They just couldn’t believe that school and neighborhood segregation could be intentional in cities like Chicago and Boston.

Desegregation is also really complex to get a handle on. To really get into the nitty-gritty reality of how these schools came to be segregated took a lot of research, more than most reporters or television journalists could do. Most places, especially television, would drop in for a day or two for the story and then fly back out. They were compelled by these anti-busing activists who were able to make really persuasive sound bites and visible protests that resonated powerfully. Anti-busing activists were really savvy in how they framed they story. The pro-busing side, the case they were trying to make, was much more complicated.

When we think of the relationship between TV and civil rights, almost everyone thinks of the 1950s and 1960s and the really positive role television played in bringing Little Rock, Selma, and Montgomery to a national audience. I think that’s largely a true story. Television news really forced Americans to confront what was going on in the Jim Crow South. But that same medium played almost the exact opposite role when it came to school segregation. It framed those anti-busing activists in a very positive light.

It wasn’t only the media that fell for the busing narrative. You name a who’s who of liberal luminaries that denounced busing, from old-guard stalwarts like Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy to contemporary icons like Joe Biden.

Why Busing Failed book cover.
University of California Press

Most of these Northern white liberal politicians were reflecting what they understood as the sentiments of their constituents. For them, they thought of civil rights and integration as being a Southern story. They took seriously the idea that these Northern schools just couldn’t be intentionally segregated. Therefore, when they started hearing about these schools from their constituents, hearing that language of neighborhood schools and protecting the homeowners’ rights, that really resonated with them.

It was a fault line for a lot of these liberal politicians. It was safer to condemn school segregation in Little Rock, much less so to condemn that in Chicago or New York when you knew your white constituents were going to be furious at you when you came home. They didn’t have the same sense of moral urgency when it was in their own backyard.

Do you think part of the reason Northern racism was harder to expose was that it was subtler and less dramatic? There’s this whole edifice of tightly drawn school district lines where residents are able to pull down the portcullis behind them with zoning regulations. Segregation in the North relies on incredibly complex policies that were just harder to make interesting and accessible.

The way racism functioned in the North was much subtler. In the South it’s easy to picture how racism operated—colored drinking fountains and white drinking fountains. The system of Jim Crow segregation was so visible. It was still incredibly difficult to overturn that system, but it was easier to visualize. For Northern white citizens and white politicians, the way their schools and neighborhoods were structured was just normal, they didn’t know or chose not to understand that it wasn’t just a matter of white families choosing to live in white neighborhoods and black families in black neighborhoods. There was a whole history of mortgage redlining, zoning decisions, public housing discrimination, and real estate discrimination that created those separate neighborhoods. But the subtlety of that allowed white people to just see it as common sense, just how our neighborhood and schools should be.

It’s easier for them to say, and mean, well, these are our neighborhood schools, this is our property, and we want to protect those things and lobby for zoning restrictions that reflect that. It made it easier because it they believed it to be an innocent thing that just happened and it gave them a language to be able to argue against school desegregation that resonated powerfully and didn’t seem racist.

Let’s zoom out. You mention presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, Ford, and Reagan in passing. But you devote a whole chapter to Nixon. What is his legacy on school desegregation? Was he the most influential president in terms of this issue?

I would make that argument. His legacy for the South is fairly positive one. It was finally under his presidency that schools in the South finally started to integrate many years after Brown v. Board of Education. And that was partly his decision to take seriously the charges against de jure segregation—segregation by law—and ask his lawyers to prosecute those cases to make meaningful progress in that area. So his record is actually stronger on that than the presidents before or after him.

But his legacy on the Northern side makes him the most important president for school desegregation is that he really did draw a sharp distinction between de jure and de facto segregation, and that made it a lot easier for Northern schools to be let off the hook. Then he appointed record numbers of judges at the district and Supreme Court levels, and the decisions they made subsequently really changed dynamics of what was constitutionally possible with regards to school desegregation.

What was the nadir of school desegregation after Brown v. Board?

The 1964–1974 period is really what casts the die in terms of what’s possible for school desegregation. The reason I titled the book Why Busing Failed is because when I would tell people I was working on a book about the history of busing, most would shake their heads and say, “It’s too bad that policy failed.” I think after Boston it became very difficult to get people to think seriously about this as a politics that could succeed on a large-scale level. There were a number of school districts that had success with it, in part because they received less attention and things worked on a local level without it exploding the way that Boston did.

Why did Boston resonate so? Is it because South Boston and Charlestown are easier to other, and it’s easier to draw a distinction between them and the rest of white America in the North?

Yeah, the short answer of why Boston resonates so powerfully is that it’s easy to blame things on Irish people. It was easier to pretend that South Boston wasn’t representative of the city. Those were working-class enclaves that had some unique ethnic particularities, but they were in no way unique in their feelings about school desegregation.

The other reason it resonated so powerfully is that there was violence and the media covered it as a crisis story. Something I’d never really thought about before is that television news had to get their camera crews on the scene in advance, so once Boston became identified as a continuing story they had a camera crew there to report on whatever transpired. Once the crisis coverage begins, and the protesters begin harassing Teddy Kennedy and breaking glass, once that happens, television cameras really don’t leave for two years. They saw violence and it really became the emblematic, iconic image of what busing looked like.

It’s a problem because it makes us begin the story of busing in the 1970s when really, even in Boston, it began at least two decades earlier. But it also forces us to pay attention and focus our energy on the anger and frustration of white parents as opposed to the constitutional rights of black students. When we think of Boston we think of white South Boston people throwing rocks and at buses, but the whole reason those buses were there is that Boston had intentionally segregated their schools for decades.

Do you think there are signs of forward movement on school desegregation again?

I’ve been surprised in the last couple years how much the issue of school integration has come back to the forefront. I think a lot of that had to do with Nikole Hannah-Jones on This American Life, that seems to be the one everyone mentions when it comes to school integration. [Ed. Note: In her story, Hannah-Jones describes the reams of research that prove that desegregation improves educational outcomes, but then shows the immense racial and political hurdles that face attempts to enact integration—using the case study of a school district on the border of Ferguson, Missouri.] It’s great work and it’s made a lot of people think seriously again about school integration.

One of the goals in my book is to get people to think about the fact that schools are still segregated many decades after Brown v. Board because of intentional choices that politicians and parents and school officials made. In regards to school zoning, school financing, and student assignment, those were intentional things that happened. If we want to have a different set of outcomes in the future and have meaningful school integration in terms of race and socioeconomic status we have to make different choices. It wasn’t inevitable that Brown was going fail as it did and it wasn’t inevitable that schools were going to be segregated the way they are now. Those were choices that people made and continue to make. To have different outcomes, we need to have different choices.