The 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, ruled that racial segregation in public schools was an unconstitutional act.
Yet school districts across the country continued to remain largely segregated due to demographics and a lack of adequate means for students to travel to other schools. Forty-one years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in a North Carolina case that schools must integrate their schools by way of busing students from various neighborhoods, which sought to promote racial diversity.
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The NAACP Legal Defense Fund built a case for segregation on the behalf of six-year old James Swann and nine other families. In 1965, a district court judge ruled the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case in favor of the board, stating that there was not a constitutional obligation to increase diversity in schools. Swann’s father, a theology professor, most certainly could afford to send his son anywhere but the family’s inclusion made a stronger case as a result. The case was heard again in 1969 and won, making then-Judge James B. McMillan an unpopular figure in the south.
The judge ordered a plan that stated Black students in Charlotte should be bused to suburban and predominately White schools while White students should be bused into the inner city. McMillan was met with heavy resistance from not only the school districts, but also angry parents unhappy with the idea of race mixing in schools. After an appeals court ruling that negated the plan, the case made its way to the Supreme Court where the justices ruled 9-0 in favor of the Swann side of the argument. The Court was careful to call the ruling a “remedial technique” in achieving racial balance.
Not surprisingly, the federal case gave way to similar measures being passed in cities such as Detroit and other major school districts. Suburban families, still buckling under the weight of decades of racial tension, were largely resistant to busing as a means of integration. White parents were staunchly against the ruling, and in 1974, a Massachusetts court ruling led to race-fueled protests in segregated South Boston.
The landmark decision in North Carolina expired just ten years ago, after a 1999 ruling showed that the busing technique may have been a touch archaic. Other school districts began dropping the busing rule, deciding that students would be allowed to attend any school they wanted to. In northern district and points west, the busing ruling was not implemented as widely, basing student placement on neighborhood demographics alone.
School integration is certainly a hot button issue, even in the 21st century. However, with Black students making up a significantly smaller portion of the entire student body nationwide, there has to be more data produced that point to the necessity of diversity and a stronger focus on improving the quality of education for all students. Beyond making racial balance in schools a priority, students of color deserve the same opportunity to succeed afforded to all who attend public schools.