Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education (Great Events from History: North American Series)
Article abstract: The Supreme Court rules that busing is a constitutional means of achieving public school desegregation.
Summary of Event
The original catalyst for this case was the plan of the school board of Charlotte, Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, to close some African American schools, create attendance zones for most of the schools in the district, and allow a “freedom-of-choice” provision under which students could transfer to any school in the district, provided that they could furnish their own transportation and the school was not already filled to capacity. The litigation began on January 19, 1965, when eleven African American families, including Vera and Darius Swann and their son James, were convinced by attorney Julius L. Chambers to sue the district for relief. The plaintiffs challenged the plan on the premise that the closing of the African American schools would place the burden of desegregation on the African American students, and that the other features would only perpetuate segregation.
In 1965, federal district court judge J. Braxton Craven rejected the plaintiff’s challenge and approved the school board’s plan. A year later, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed Craven’s ruling. At this point, Chambers opted not to appeal to the Supreme Court, because he feared that the Court would only affirm the lower rulings under the precedents established at that...
(The entire section is 1250 words.)
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Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
During the 15 years that followed the Supreme Court's momentous SCHOOL DESEGREGATION decision in BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), school boards throughout the South did little to eliminate racial separation in the public schools. In some cases school boards merely announced a race-neutral school attendance policy. In other cases white-dominated school boards closed schools that were ripe for INTEGRATION and instead built new schools in suburban areas that would be virtually white-only. The NAACP and the federal government became increasingly frustrated by these methods and sought relief in the federal courts. As federal courts began to issue desegregation plans, questions arose over whether court-ordered supervision of local schools was proper. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1, 91 S. Ct. 1267, 28 L. Ed.2d 554 (1971) (also known as North Carolina State Board of Education v. Swann, the Supreme Court issued another landmark decision, ruling that federal courts could exercise their remedial powers to end a dual school system divided by race. The Court made clear that when school boards refused to act in GOOD FAITH, the federal courts had broad discretion to order, implement, and oversee the desegregation of school systems. In addition, the Court endorsed the use of busing to ensure desegregation. Swann was a controversial...
(The entire section is 1410 words.)
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (Great American Court Cases)
Legal Citation: 402 U.S. 1 (1971)
James E. Swann
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
That the local public schools were not doing enough to integrate their student bodies.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant
Julius LeVonne Chambers and James M. Nabritt III
Chief Lawyers for Appellee
William J. Waggoner and Benjamin S. Horack
Justices for the Court
Hugo Lafayette Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Warren E. Burger (writing for the Court), William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Date of Decision
20 April 1971
The Supreme Court upheld the desegregation plan developed by the federal court overseeing public school integration in the district.
Swann is important for its endorsement of school busing as a means of achieving racial integration.
In 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (Supreme Court Drama)
Appellant: James E. Swann
Appellee: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
Appellant's Claim: That the local public school desegregation plan was inadequate to achieve integration and protect the civil rights of its students.
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Julius LeVonne Chambers, James M. Nabritt III
Chief Lawyers for Appellee: William J. Waggoner, Benjamin S. Horack
Justices for the Court: Hugo L. Black, Harry A. Blackmun, William J. Brennan, Jr., Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, William O. Douglas, John Marshall Harlan II, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: April 20, 1971
Decision: Ruled in favor of Swann by upholding the federal district court's ambitious desegregation plan designed to fully integrate the district's public schools.
Significance: The ruling affirmed the role of federal district courts in overseeing operations of local school districts.
Following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) ending legally enforced racial segregation (keeping races apart) in public schools, progress toward racial integration (mixing of the races) continued to be slow. The tradition of having separate schools for black and white children was well established in American culture.
A Southern Resistance
The Southern states in particular immediately began thinking of ways to avoid obeying the Court's desegregation (ban segregation) directions given in Brown. In reaction, the Court in Brown v. Board of Education II (1955) directed the lower federal district courts to develop plans to force desegregation. Resistance persisted. One Virginia school board even closed its public schools to avoid integrating them. Tuition monies were granted to students to attend segregated private schools. In reaction, the Supreme Court in Griffin v. County School Board (1964) ordered the public schools to open again. "Freedom of choice" plans were also introduced in which children could choose which school to attend, white or black. The Court in Green v. County School Board (1968) ruled this approach was not strong enough to truly achieve integration. The Court held that the student bodies of each school should be similar in mix of races as the population in the area in general.
As white Americans fled the trouble-ridden cities to suburbs and predominately white schools, the distinct courts decided the primary way to swiftly integrate schools was through busing. Busing involved carrying students long distances on a daily basis to create more racially-mixed schools.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District of North Carolina was large, including both the city of Charlotte as well as the rural region of Mecklenburg County. The district included 101 schools scattered across some 550 square miles. Twenty-nine percent of the 84,000 school-age children in the area were black and most of them lived in one particular section of Charlotte. A desegregation plan was created in 1965 to integrate the public schools. The plan had redrawn school attendance zones and allowed students freedom of choice regarding which school they wished to attend. Almost 30,000 students were bused to distant schools under the plan. However, little integration resulted as over half of the black students remained in all-black schools. The schools remained generally the same as before.
Swann Applies Green
Inspired by the Court's decision in Green, James Swann and other residents of the school district finally filed a lawsuit in 1968 claiming the integration plan was not effective. Unlike previous court cases, however, that focused primarily on rural school districts, this case involved urban (city) schools. For example, the school district involved in the Green decision was a small rural school district. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, on the other hand, was what is known as a large "unified" school district including various communities.
Swann won his suit in federal district court. Overseeing a new Charlotte-Mecklenburg plan, the court created a much more ambitious and expensive plan in 1970 involving increased school busing. The plan stated that twenty-nine percent of each public school should consist of
The school board appealed the plan to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court, agreeing with the board, reversed part of the plan claiming it placed an unreasonable burden on the board. In response to Swann's defeat in the appeals court, the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court which agreed to hear the case.
To the Supreme Court
Challenged in the Supreme Court, the Court in 1971 unanimously ruled in favor of Swann and the NAACP. The more extensive desegregation plan developed by the district court was to be followed. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, writing for the Court, recognized that busing, though not necessarily a desirable means, may be the only means to begin the school integration process. Freedom of choice in deciding which school a child would like to attend could not adequately solve the segregation issue. As Burger stated,
In these circumstances, we find no basis for holding that the local school authorities may not be required to employ bus transportation as one tool of school desegregation. Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in [close-by] school.
Chief Justice Burger supplied broad guidelines to district court judges still dealing with segregated school systems. The mathematical ratios imposed on Charlotte-Mecklenburg, in which twenty-nine out of every one hundred students in each school would be black, was one approach meeting the Court's approval. Another tool was redesign of school attendance boundaries to include residential areas of both races.
Courts in Charge of Schools
The Court once again approved supervision of public school districts by federal district court judges. The Court commanded that district courts
were to "make every effort to achieve the greatest possible degree of actual desegregation." The severity of the constitutional violation, Burger wrote, should determine the extent of the forced integration measures. In a later ruling the Court added that such fixes could be discontinued when integration was accomplished.
The Court's support of the Charlotte plan led to extensive busing programs in many parts of the United States during the 1970s, including Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and other major cities. Busing became one of the most controversial social issues of the decade. The mood of the Supreme Court toward forced desegregation, particularly through busing, began to change by the 1980s with five new justices appointed. The Court became less supportive of such sweeping district court desegregation plans as approved in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In fact, the 1971 Swann decision was the last unanimous ruling (all nine justices agreeing) by the Supreme Court in school desegregation cases, a remarkable trend that had started with the Brown decision in 1954.
Busing continued to spark controversy through the end of the century. Busing was highly unpopular among black Americans because of the distances their children were being taken and fears of safety in predominately white schools. Resistance was most pronounced in the North, perhaps less accustomed to long-distance busing than the largely rural South. Such court-ordered desegregation plans as adopted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg led to very mixed results in achieving integration through the years. Despite extensive busing, many schools still remained racially segregated to a large degree. The rise of largely white private schools and the trend of white families moving out of the cities to new school districts in the suburbs where few minorities lived were key reasons.
Suggestions for further reading
Belknap, Michel R. Desegregation of Public Education. New York: Garland Press, 1991.
Leone, Bruno. Racism: Opposing Viewpoints. 2nd Edition. St. Paul, MN: Greenhaven Press, 1986.
Schwartz, Bernard. Swann's Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Watras, Joseph. Politics, Race, and Schools: Racial Integration, 1954-1994. New York: Garland Publications, 1997.