School integration and busing

Desegregation of public educational institutions so that black and white students have equal access to educational facilities, often through the transportation by bus of school children.

In the landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education], the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the doctrine of separate but equal, established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), was unconstitutional. Two years earlier, five cases from lower courts in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., had reached the Court. In all the cases but Delaware, the lower courts had upheld laws prohibiting black children from attending white schools. In deciding Brown, the Court decided all these cases.

The Brown decision established the principle that separate educational facilities are unequal facilities, a principle that would guide U.S. educational law regarding race in the following decades. The decision did not result in any immediate changes because it was a principle, without guidelines for practical implementation. Therefore, the court followed up the first Brown decision with Brown II[case]Brown II[Brown II] in 1955, when the Court ordered southern school districts to desegregate with all deliberate speed. In Brown II, the Court gave responsibility for desegregation to local school authorities. District courts were given the power to enforce the racial desegregation of schools through orders and decrees.

Even after the strict admonition of Brown II, nothing happened immediately, other than the mobilization of segregationist forces determined to resist desegregation. In 1957 the Brown decision was put to the test when President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to activate the Arkansas national guard to escort seven black children through an angry white mob to integrate all-white Little RockLittle Rock, Alabama, school segregation crisis High School. One of the most extreme examples of white defiance against orders to desegregate occurred in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959. Rather than integrate their schools, the white county leaders shut down all schools, both black and white, for five years. Whites who could afford it sent their children to the newly formed Prince Edward Academy. Schools reopened only after the Court ruled, in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County[case]Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County[Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County] (1964), that it was unconstitutional for any state or local government to close public schools or to contribute in any way to the support of private segregated schools.

The End of De Jure Segregation

In the second half of the 1960’s, most legally enforced, or de jure, school segregation ended. However, this did not mean that school populations were suddenly racially balanced to reflect the communities within which they were located. This first phase of school integration following the Brown decision is often referred to as “freedom of choice” or “voluntary integration” because blacks and whites were regarded as free to attend the other race’s school if they so desired. Other districts had “majority to minority” desegregation policies, where a student in a racial group that made up the majority in a school could transfer to a another school where members of that racial group were in the minority. Under these types of desegregation strategies, however, the overwhelming majority of whites chose to continue attending mostly white or all-white schools, while most blacks continued attending either mostly black or all-black schools.

At first, courts went along with the freedom of choice plans, as they seemed reasonable ways of ending de jure segregation. However, when it became obvious that meaningful integration was not going to take place voluntarily, the courts began to change their tactics. 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), the Court ruled that the freedom of choice plan followed by the New Kent County, Virginia, school board was unconstitutional. The Court noted that not a single white student had volunteered to attend the all-black county school, thus maintaining a dual-race system. It ordered the school board to come up with a plan, such as geographic zoning, that would realistically lead to integrated district schools. Following Green, the courts increasingly ruled against freedom of choice plans and began to favor geographic zoning without reference to neighborhood racial concentrations as a more forceful approach to school racial integration.

Busing and Judicially Enforced Integration

During the 1970’s under the lead of the Court, the federal judiciary became much more involved in attempting to integrate schools in reality as well as in theory. Courts began to make efforts to ensure that black and white students were actually enrolled in the same schools and did not simply have the abstract right to attend school together. The method that received the most public attention was busing. This involved moving students to where members of other races were in order to achieve racial balance. In the 1971 case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[case]Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education[Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education], the Court recognized that de facto segregation (actual segregation not supported by law) in schools was linked to residential segregation because children attended schools in the areas in which they lived. The Court ruled that the practice of busing students in order to achieve desegregation was a legitimate remedy.

Not long after the Court sanctioned busing as a desegregation tool, it also made another important ruling in the area of school desegregation, in effect extending the practice of busing to systems outside the South. For the first time, the Court turned its attention northward, where racial segregation was, according to the Court, often just as widespread as it was in the South. In the historic 1973 case Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[case]Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1[Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1], the Court found that Denver, Colorado, officials had been intentionally maintaining a dual school system, segregated by race. The Rocky Mountain state capital was ordered by the court to desegregate its public school system, beginning the process of school desegregation outside the South.

Busing was unpopular in many areas. In Boston, white parents and their children overturned and burned buses that were to carry black children to all-white South Boston schools. Other non-Deep-South communities ordered by the courts to bus as a means of forcibly integrating students included Seattle, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Louisville, Austin, Dallas, Dayton, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis. Though the response was not quite as violent as in Boston, busing often met with opposition in these communities.

Another method of active integration aimed at reducing the effects of residential segregation was school Redistricting;schools[schools]redistricting. This version of redistricting involved redrawing school attendance areas to produce a mixture of students of both races. In some ways, school busing was the right hand of redistricting because some redrawn districts could be quite large, requiring that students be transported long distances to their new schools. Yet another related court-sanctioned method was pairing or clustering schools and distributing students among them with the goal of achieving racial balance.

White Flight and the Limits of Busing

Some experts argue that forced desegregation by the courts was counterproductive. Parents who either opposed desegregation or desegregation by the methods sanctioned by the courts had two options. First, they could leave the public school system, as the early segregationists had done, and enroll their children in private schools. Second, they could leave urban school districts, which tended to contain large numbers of black children, for suburban districts in which whites were clearly the majority population. There is some debate about the extent to which white suburbanization was a result of white flight from urban schools, rather than a population shift occurring for other reasons. Nevertheless, throughout the 1970’s American urban school districts grew increasingly poor and black, while suburbs around them grew increasingly prosperous and white. The federal courts were aware of this trend and in several instances intervened to merge predominantly white and black school districts that they contended were the result of deliberate, de jure segregation.

The Court was drawn into the issue and acted for the first time to limit efforts at integration in Milliken v. Bradley[case]Milliken v. Bradley[Milliken v. Bradley] (1974). This case dealt with the Detroit, Michigan, school district, which was already majority black by 1970. Both the lower federal courts and the court of appeals ruled that it was impossible to integrate Detroit’s schools without taking into account the surrounding majority white metropolitan area. Therefore, they ordered the Detroit district merged with the fifty-four predominantly white districts surrounding the city, in effect creating a “super district.” On appeal, however, the Court ruled that because there was no evidence or legacy of intentional de jure segregation in the governmental actions creating the surrounding white districts, there was no obligation to dissolve those districts. From 1974 on, school desegregation efforts were limited to within school districts.

The Concept of Unitary Status

School officials in many districts trying to satisfy court desegregation orders began to question when they would be considered integrated and thus freed from court supervision. In the Green case, the Court suggested that school systems had achieved this goal when discrimination had completely vanished. In Swann, the Court elaborated by adding that once desegregation was achieved, school systems would be freed from judicial oversight and the continual racial balancing act, provided that any subsequent racial imbalances in schools were purely demographic and not discriminatory in nature.

Though there had been some activity in district and appellate courts on this issue, the first important Supreme Court decision on unitary status was not handed down until 1991. In the case of Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[case]Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell[Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell] (1991), the Court overturned a lower court’s ruling and declared that the Oklahoma City school system was at last “unitary.” The Court disagreed with the appellate court ruling, which stated that a district could be under court-ordered desegregation for an “indefinite future.” Instead, it declared that once a system had achieved unitary status, it no longer needed court approval for student assignment policies provided it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause.

The second major Court decision regarding unitary status was handed down a year later in the 1992 case of Freeman v. Pitts[case]Freeman v. Pitts[Freeman v. Pitts]. This case involved the large Atlanta suburban district of DeKalb County, Georgia. The school district filed for unitary status in 1988, which a district court declared had been achieved in the areas of student assignment, transportation, facilities, and extracurricular activities. The district court maintained, however, that the DeKalb County school district needed to do more work in the area of teacher and principal assignment before it could be declared unitary in these two areas. An appellate court overturned the lower court’s decision, saying that the school district must be unitary in all six areas before it could be granted any measure of unitary status. The Supreme Court overturned the court of appeals ruling, stating that a district could be declared unitary on a piecemeal basis. Moreover, it reiterated its position in the earlier Swann decision that a school district could not be held responsible for racial imbalances caused by demographic factors beyond a school board’s control.

Further Reading

  • Jeffrey A. Raffel’s Historical Dictionary of School Segregation and Desegregation (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing, 1998) is an excellent source of general information on this subject. Charles Clotfelter’s After Brown: The Rise and Retreat of School Desegregation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004) presents a comprehensive account of the history of desegregation from 1954 to the 1990’s. Ronald Formisano’s Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) argues that class resentment, ethnic rivalries, and support of neighborhoods were more important than racism in the protests. Another useful critical stuyd is Sheryll Cashin’s The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). For broader studies the Supreme Court’s involvement in desegregation, see Michael J. Klarman’s From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), Christine L. Compston’s Earl Warren: Justice for All (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), and Massive Resistance: Southern Opposition to the Second Reconstruction, edited by Clive Webb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). From “Brown” to “Bakke”: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954-1978 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), by J. Harvie Wilkinson, describes the evolution of Supreme Court policies during the most critical years of school integration. Swann’s Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), by Bernard Schwartz, provides a detailed discussion of the case that led to the pursuit of school integration by active means such as busing. The Court Versus Congress: Prayer, Busing, and Abortion (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989), by Edward Keynes, considers busing one of the controversial issues that have put the Court at odds with elected representatives. In Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), sociologist David J. Armor presents a critical view of the program of forced integration pursued by the courts since the 1970’s. On the other hand, the case studies of school desegregation and resegregation presented in Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of “Brown v. Board of Education” (New York: New Press, 1997), edited by Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton, and Elaine R. Jones, generally suggest that the Court has not been forceful enough in pushing a clear vision of school integration.

Affirmative action

Brown v. Board of Education

Civil Rights movement



Green v. County School Board of New Kent County

Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County

Judicial activism

Keyes v. Denver School District No. 1

Milliken v. Bradley

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education