• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court decided that federal courts may order local school boards to use extensive busing plans to desegregate schools whenever racial segregation had been supported by public policy.

When the Supreme Court invalidated freedom-of-choice plans in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[case]Green v. County School Board of New Kent County[Green v. County School Board of New Kent County] (1968), it announced that it would examine desegregation plans to see if the “transition to unitary schools” was proceeding at an adequate pace. This transition was especially difficult to achieve in large metropolitan areas where residential segregation commonly existed on a de facto basis. The sprawling school district of the Charlotte metropolitan area in North Carolina had been under a court-ordered desegregation plan for several years. Approximately 30 percent of the students were African American, of which about half were attending schools that were integrated to some degree. In conformity with Green, the federal district court ordered a more ambitious desegregation plan, involving the transportation of some thirteen thousand students between the predominantly white regions and regions with large black concentrations. The controversial plan required the purchase of one hundred new buses and an annual operating budget of $500,000.School integration and busing;Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education]

Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Warren E. BurgerBurger, Warren E.;Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education] emphasized the authority of the federal courts to provide remedies for the present consequences of past de jure segregation. While recognizing that residential segregation based entirely on personal choice did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Burger contended that the federal courts had broad equity power whenever segregation had been sanctioned or even encouraged by governmental policy. If governmental responsibility for segregation were established, the courts would then have the authority to use busing and other appropriate tools to achieve nonsegregated schools. Although Burger wrote that every school was not required to reflect the racial composition of the school district, he nevertheless approved of “the very limited use of mathematical ratios.” The opinion indicated that courts would not be allowed continually to reorder new busing plans on the basis of changing de facto residential patterns within a region.

The ambiguities of the Swann decision resulted from strong disagreements and extensive negotiations among the justices. Because Burger had first argued against the busing plan in conference, some justices were angry when Burger chose to write the official opinion in the case. Swann’s emphasis on the de facto/de jure distinction meant that most southern schools had the affirmative duty to achieve integration. Elsewhere, federal courts would have the authority to order busing remedies if there was a finding of some governmental involvement in promoting segregation, as in Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[case]Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1] (1973).

Further Reading
  • Friedman, Leon, ed. “Brown v. Board”: The Landmark Oral Argument Before the Supreme Court. New York: New Press, 2004.
  • Schwartz, Bernard. Swann’s Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1

Milliken v. Bradley

Race and discrimination

School integration and busing

Segregation, de facto

Segregation, de jure

State action

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