U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In its decision in the case of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the use of busing to desegregate the public schools of Charlotte, North Carolina, opening the way for federal judges throughout the United States to impose busing as a means of racial desegregation in public schools.

Summary of Event

Although the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) enacted in 1868, required that states provide equal protection of the laws for all persons, African Americans continued to suffer from severe discrimination in education, employment, housing, and other aspects of American life. In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court formally endorsed racial segregation as an acceptable practice that did not violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Cities and states were permitted to create laws that forced blacks to attend separate schools, ride on separate train cars, and even drink from separate drinking fountains in public buildings. Busing (school desegregation) Desegregation, schools Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation (Apr. 20, 1971) [kw]Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation, U.S. (Apr. 20, 1971) [kw]Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation, U.S. Supreme (Apr. 20, 1971) [kw]Busing to End School Segregation, U.S. Supreme Court Endorses (Apr. 20, 1971) [kw]School Segregation, U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End (Apr. 20, 1971) [kw]Segregation, U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School (Apr. 20, 1971) Busing (school desegregation) Desegregation, schools Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation [g]North America;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] [g]United States;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] [c]Education;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 20, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Endorses Busing to End School Segregation[00270] Chambers, Julius LeVonne McMillan, James B. Burger, Warren E. Brennan, William J. Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;school desegregation

Many kinds of local facilities, such as municipal swimming pools and golf courses, were reserved for whites only. The facilities provided for blacks, if there were any at all, were often shabby and grossly inferior to those provided by the government for whites. For example, African American students were frequently forced to receive their education in unheated, one-room shacks with virtually no funding for paper, pencils, desks, or other supplies. Meanwhile, white students in the same districts attended well-equipped schools with superior resources.

During the twentieth century, civil rights lawyers filed lawsuits seeking judicial decisions that would outlaw racial segregation in schools. The lawyers wanted to stop state and local governments from providing inferior educational resources to blacks. Because most black children had access only to inferior educational resources, they had little hope of attending college in the future or of competing with whites for good jobs. The inferior schooling provided to African American children helped to ensure that many of them would spend their lives as poor laborers in the employ of whites.

The Supreme Court finally gave meaning to the constitutional right of equal protection by declaring, in the 1954 landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) that segregated public schools violated the U.S. Constitution. The Court declared that racial discrimination Racial and ethnic discrimination in public schools caused damage to the personal development and life prospects of black children. The Court’s opinion in Brown, delivered in 1955, was supposed to tell the nation how to dismantle school segregation. The Supreme Court said only that desegregation should proceed with “all deliberate speed.”

Federal district judges were instructed to examine school systems on a city-by-city basis in order to develop individual remedies that would correct illegal segregation. Because the Supreme Court did not provide clear guidance on how and when schools were to end racial segregation, many school systems remained segregated for years after the Brown decision. Black students continued to be barred from attending the well-equipped, all-white public schools. In many cities, government officials intentionally delayed making any changes in the schools because they did not agree with the judicial decisions mandating desegregation.

The court of Warren E. Burger around the time of its Swann decision.

(Harris and Ewing/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

As a result of widespread resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision against racial segregation, civil rights lawyers filed new lawsuits on behalf of black parents and children seeking judicial orders that would mandate specific desegregation plans for individual cities. Frequently, the parents and children were represented in court by lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a public-interest organization that had pursued school desegregation cases since the 1930’s. In a 1969 decision, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969) the Supreme Court indicated that it would no longer tolerate delays in implementing school desegregation. The Court said that “every school district is to terminate dual school systems at once,” but it did not say how schools should achieve desegregation.

Julius LeVonne Chambers, a lawyer for the NAACP, initiated a lawsuit in 1965 that sought to end racial segregation in the Charlotte, North Carolina, public schools. The preliminary court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education did not require significant changes in the school system. Initially, the school district purported to eliminate segregation by permitting students to transfer between schools voluntarily if there were open places available. This freedom of choice plan did little to change the fact that schools were essentially either all-white or all-black. Only 490 of the 20,000 black students attended schools that contained any white students, and most of these students were in one school that happened to have only 7 white students. The few black students who attempted to attend all-white schools were often attacked by mobs of angry whites.

Chambers filed a legal action in 1969 to ask the court to force the schools to end segregation. After hearing evidence during a trial, Judge James B. McMillan, the federal district judge in Charlotte, found that the Charlotte schools were illegally segregated. Judge McMillan gave the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education an opportunity to develop a plan for desegregating the schools, but he subsequently rejected the board’s proposals as inadequate. With the assistance of education consultants, McMillan developed and imposed a desegregation plan in the public schools that involved transporting white children to previously all-black schools and black children to previously all-white schools in order to achieve desegregation. By mixing black children and white children in every school building, the school officials would no longer be able to provide adequate educational resources only for white students.

Many white residents did not want their children to attend schools with black children. Judge McMillan received threatening telephone calls and was ostracized by the community. Chambers was victimized by more specific attacks, with his office, car, and home damaged by firebombs and dynamite. Amid the controversy, the school board still sought to avoid implementing desegregation. The school system asked the Supreme Court to overturn Judge McMillan’s busing plan.

Since 1954, even with changes in the composition of the Supreme Court, the justices had always unanimously supported desegregation whenever school districts challenged court orders against racial segregation. In the Swann case, however, many people expected at least some of the justices to be critical of busing as a tool for desegregating schools. The use of busing had become a controversial political issue, and President Richard M. Nixon had campaigned against the forced busing of schoolchildren. Nixon’s two appointees to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun, Blackmun, Harry A. were presumed to agree with the president’s view that courts should be less active in forcing school districts to desegregate.

The Swann decision opened the way for federal judges to order busing as a means of ending racial segregation in public schools. Because of the strong opposition of some members of the community to court-ordered busing in Boston in 1974, police cars had to escort many buses to protect them from protesters hurling stones.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

When the Supreme Court considered the Swann case, Chief Justice Burger and Associate Justice Hugo L. Black Black, Hugo L. initially disagreed with Judge McMillan’s busing order. Burger circulated several draft opinions that were critical of busing. Associate Justice William J. Brennan and other justices made repeated suggestions for revisions in the opinion that would support Judge McMillan’s order. Ultimately, because a majority of justices supported the busing order, Burger accommodated the other justices and wrote an opinion supporting the use of busing. On April 20, 1971, the Court announced that judges could order school districts to use busing as a means to desegregate schools. Because all nine justices supported the opinion, the Court gave busing the full weight of its authoritative endorsement. The unanimous decision was regarded as a political defeat for the Nixon administration, which urged the Court to invalidate Judge McMillan’s busing order.


The Court’s decision opened the way for federal judges throughout the United States to impose busing as a means of ending racial segregation in public schools. The use of busing spread as federal judges began to hear more lawsuits challenging discriminatory conditions in school systems. A 1973 case in which Denver, Colorado, was ordered to implement a busing plan demonstrated that the judges were willing to examine segregation in northern school systems. The results of busing plans have been mixed. Initially, there were highly publicized protests against busing by many white people. In Boston, Massachusetts, for example, residents of several white neighborhoods threw rocks at buses and attacked black passersby. As schools in many cities became integrated after decades of operation as single-race institutions, there were sometimes fights between black and white students.

Eventually, however, most schools adjusted, and desegregation became an accepted component of normal school operations. In smaller cities and countywide systems, such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, transportation of students to desegregated schools gave black students the opportunity to receive educational benefits that had previously been denied to them. Black students were no longer trapped in inferior schools with limited resources. Public opinion research indicated that, especially in southern states, the implementation of desegregation orders was accompanied by an increase in racial tolerance. Fewer people expressed the racial prejudice that had once been a component of many Americans’ attitudes. In many large metropolitan areas, however, schools failed to become racially mixed. They would have had to mix their schools with neighboring suburban schools in order to desegregate.

In 1974, however, after President Nixon had appointed a total of four justices to the Supreme Court, the Court issued a divided five-to-four decision in Milliken v. Bradley Milliken v. Bradley (1974) that prevented most busing plans from crossing school district boundaries. As large cities experienced economic decline and shrinking tax bases, deteriorating central city schools often contained predominantly poor, minority student bodies that resembled those in illegally segregated schools. Many big-city school systems had significantly fewer resources than neighboring suburbs for maintaining school buildings and for providing quality educational programs. Black students thus continued to receive inferior educational resources in many large cities. Busing (school desegregation) Desegregation, schools Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dimond, Paul R. Beyond Busing: Inside the Challenge to Urban Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. A detailed description of several school desegregation cases, including cases concerning Detroit, Michigan; Dayton and Columbus, Ohio; and Wilmington, Delaware. Contains good descriptions of the individual lawyers, judges, and school officials involved in litigation concerning busing. Provides useful descriptions of evidence and courtroom testimony that affected the judicial decisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of “Brown v. Board of Education” and Black America’s Struggle for Equality. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. Thorough, readable history of racial segregation in American schools and the various lawsuits in the early twentieth century that attacked discrimination. The most detailed description available of the litigants, lawyers, and judges who shaped the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Considered the definitive work on the history of school desegregation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Orfield, Gary. Must We Bus? Segregated Schools and National Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1989. Comprehensive review of the implications and consequences of busing plans to achieve desegregation. Examines the costs and benefits of busing and discusses alternative policies for achieving desegregation. Discusses actions by presidents, Congress, and government agencies that affected desegregation. Includes coverage of the effects of school segregation on Hispanic children.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rossell, Christine H. The Carrot or the Stick for School Desegregation Policy: Magnet Schools or Forced Busing. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. A study of problems that occur when white parents remove their children from city school systems. Presents evidence supporting magnet schools as effective tools to achieve desegregation. Asserts that white and black parents will voluntarily send their children to the same schools if schools present special programs to attract students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rossell, Christine H., and Willis D. Hawley. The Consequences of School Desegregation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983. Contains several studies on the consequences of school desegregation. Examines the effects of desegregation on intergroup relations, students’ academic achievement, and whites’ departures from the public schools. Provides a useful review of academic research on busing and its effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Bernard. Swann’s Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Detailed description of people, events, and court decisions that affected the Supreme Court’s endorsement of busing in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Provides an excellent portrait of Supreme Court justices as human beings who must persuade each other as they make, rather than follow, the law when confronted with new issues.

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