History Lesson

Swann Song

They just killed busing in the one place it really worked.

Last week, a federal judge ordered Charlotte, N.C., to stop busing students to integrate schools. Newspapers noted the perfect symmetry–busing had begun with the Supreme Court’s 1971 Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision–and the neoconservative-dominated commentariat cheered the demise of what it deemed a failed experiment. But while busing did great damage in many cities, in Charlotte it was widely considered an against-the-odds success. That fact makes last week’s news all the sadder.

The landmark Swann suit had its origins in the 1955 Supreme Court decision known as Brown II. Brown II gummed up the initial 1954 Brown ruling–which had decreed segregated schools unconstitutional–by saying, in a now-infamous oxymoron, that desegregation should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” By 1965, Charlotte had seen more deliberation than speed. Only 2 percent of black schoolchildren attended integrated schools. To maintain this racial separation, 60 percent of all students were actually bused to schools far from their homes, a form of busing that raised no outcry from the white community.

With the injustice self-evident, the NAACP and other civil rights groups trolled for parents to challenge the system, finding Vera and Darius Swann. The Swanns wanted their 6-year-old son, James, to attend Seversville Elementary School, one of the few integrated schools in the city. Seversville Elementary happened to be closest to their home, but the school board refused to admit James.

The Swanns filed suit but lost. They continued to appeal until their case reached the desk of Federal District Court Judge James McMillan in 1969. The grandson of two confederate soldiers, McMillan was on record deriding “the folly … of requiring that pupils be transported far away from their natural habitat so that some artificial … racial balance be maintained.” But when he examined the Swann case he realized that Charlotte’s school board was plainly in violation of the law and that it wasn’t going to desegregate unless forced by the courts. The precedent had been set with the 1968 Supreme Court decision Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County, Va., in which the court ruled school boards had an “affirmative duty” to ensure “racial discrimination would be eliminated root and branch.” McMillan ordered the Charlotte board to draw up a plan to take steps–not necessarily busing–to do so.

At first, school board officials refused to implement desegregation plans and then submitted plans that failed to address the problem. All McMillan could do was reject them. After a year of school board stalling, McMillan appointed an outside referee to devise a desegregation strategy, which entailed the busing of black kids to previously white schools, and vice versa.

The buses began rolling on Sept. 9, 1970. Enraged, many whites protested, sometimes violently. McMillan received death threats and was hanged in effigy. The office of the Swanns’ attorney was fire bombed. Black students were beat up at school. Some white parents withdrew and sent their children to private schools, while others formed citizens’ groups to agitate against busing.

In 1971, the high court unanimously upheld McMillan’s decision. But the school board, split between busing supporters and foes, continued to produce half-hearted integration plans that McMillan had to dismiss as not “in good faith,” and busing continued according to the court’s prescription.

Meanwhile, a previously apolitical 33-year-old housewife named Maggie Ray began convening local activists, black and white, pro- and anti-busing, to work out an alternative solution–and also endeared herself to the judge at a backyard barbecue. Her informal committee, called the Citizens Advisory Group, finagled an end-run around the school board and persuaded McMillan to put it in charge of the busing plan. In 1974, the board compromised with the committee on an arrangement that won McMillan’s approval, and a year later he withdrew the court from supervision of Charlotte’s desegregation plans, trusting the citizens to do it fairly.

After the initial round of white flight, Charlotte maintained for the next two decades a mix of roughly 60 percent white and 40 percent black students. The presence of whites, especially affluent ones, in once all-black schools lifted those schools’ quality, since white parents’ complaints about outdated textbooks, sub par teachers, and dilapidated facilities were heeded by school officials. Blacks’ test scores rose too, after a special effort led by a pro-busing superintendent. Students, parents, and local officials found new pride in their integrated schools, generating more goodwill. Political reform followed too, creating a city government that better represented both blacks and poor whites. Finally, a solid educational system provided a foundation for the economic growth the region has recently enjoyed.

Charlotte’s busing success hinged on several things. Unlike the earlier schemes, Ray’s plan didn’t exempt the wealthy whites in southeast Charlotte. As a result, some lower-class whites no longer felt singled out to carry the burden of integration. Acknowledging the situation’s class dimensions blunted the racial animosity–and created a coalition of blacks and less affluent whites. Also, the white flight that doomed busing in Boston and elsewhere was not really an option. Charlotte’s whites could flee to private schools (and some did), but because the county had consolidated its school system in 1960 the outlying areas as well as the inner cities were embraced in the busing blueprint. (A 1974 Supreme Court ruling exempted suburban school districts from busing, meaning few metropolises experienced wholesale integration Charlotte-style.)

E qually important–and I admit this sounds kind of cornball–success required the civic spiritedness of pro- and anti-busing parents alike, who saw their way clear to hammering out compromises. This meant shelving the belief that a single, foolproof plan could be implemented once and for all. Citizens got involved with adjusting the busing plan (and refighting painful battles) year after year after year–a demanding but inescapable burden. The 1990s even saw a major overhaul, when Charlotte introduced magnet schools devoted to excellence in a single area, such as math, and open to students from all neighborhoods–to give whites extra incentive to travel long distances to school.

Unfortunately, the magnet schools began the undoing of desegregation in Charlotte. To remain a tool for continued desegregation and not just for excellence, the magnet schools had to maintain set-asides for black students. A newcomer to Charlotte–Bill Capacchione, who had not witnessed the city’s efforts in the ‘70s to surmount mutual distrust–sued to enroll his daughter into a magnet that officials didn’t want to “tip” all white. This year, the case came before Judge Robert Potter–a former Jesse Helms aide, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and a sworn enemy of busing since he fought against it on the front lines in 1969. Calling bused students “cogs in an experimental machine,” Potter declared that all vestiges of harm wrought by the Jim Crow-era dual school system have evaporated. This despite a recent Charlotte Observer study that found that without busing, segregation would return for more than half of the district’s students.

Charlotte and the nation have come far, and we can hope that integration may someday endure without a conscious effort to preserve it. But it’s dishonest or naive to claim that that moment has arrived. Thirty years may seem like a long time to someone nursing a grievance since the pitched battles of the late ‘60s, but in the sweep of history–on the heels of 90 years of Jim Crow and 200 of race slavery–it’s nothing. Ironically, busing will become unnecessary only when no one seems to have a problem with it anymore.

Now Charlotte’s civic leaders, and other proponents of continued desegregation efforts, have to reckon with Potter’s ruling. While not carrying the weight of a Supreme Court decision, it does point the way for other judges, if they want to follow. As the city decides in the next weeks whether to appeal, it also has to scramble to make sure its denser (largely black) areas will have enough schools to house the kids who can’t be bused across town anymore to less crowded institutions.

The most distressing part of Potter’s decision was his swipe at social experimentation. As all great social reformers have known, fixed formulas, one-size-fits-all policies, and judicial fiats rarely solve intractable problems. The only thing that does is what FDR called “bold, persistent experimentation,” as the example of Charlotte nobly attests.