Although schools in a few areas of the country had been occasionally busing children to distant schools to resolve overcrowding problems on an as-needed basis, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made segregation illegal. With their ruling in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, the Court outlawed the practice of segregating students based on race, creed, color, or national origin in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States (Bryant, 1993). Busing was chosen as the method to desegregate schools. School bus transportation takes students from the city or neighborhood in which they live to suburbs, from the suburbs into the city, or even from their home county to another county.
Keywords Brown v. Board of Education; Busing; Civil Rights; Contained Unit Plan; De Facto Segregation; Desegregation; Magnet Schools; Plessy v. Ferguson; Public Schools; Segregation; Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education
Prior to 1954, public schools in the United States were almost completely segregated. Throughout the country and especially in the South, there were "black schools" and "white schools" with each school almost always comprised exclusively of students of one race. The prevailing wisdom at that time was generally based on interpretation of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision -that the races were "separate but equal." Indeed, since blacks and whites seemed to have the same types of educational facilities, adequate teachers, and a curriculum for each subject area and grade level, it was assumed both racial groups of young students were getting the same type of equal education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).
One reason for the separation of racial groups in the U. S. during this time was the work migration of clusters of unemployed minority people after the Second World War. Blacks who had been living in the rural south now moved west to fill jobs in the defense industry. This industry and others aggressively looked for workers and even provided transportation to California to get the men west quickly and efficiently. Shipyards were eager to get the additional employees, almost all of them black men, and the schools in those areas became segregated simply by the influx of minority families to a particular area (Green, 2006). At the same time, many school districts in cities in the North had long functioned with largely black or largely white student bodies. This pronounced segregation was not necessarily purposeful; but rather a result of economics, available housing, or other situations ("Controversy in Congress," 1974).
The Brown Decision
Although schools in a few areas of the country had been occasionally busing children to distant schools to resolve overcrowding problems on an as-needed basis, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court made segregation illegal. With their ruling in Brown v. Board of Education Topeka, the Court outlawed the practice of segregating students based on race, creed, color, or national origin in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States (Bryant, 1993). In his Brown opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren asserted that segregating school students is actually harmful to black children. Warren also implied that those classrooms that have only black students are inferior to those with a mix of races and that academics for both groups of students can improve when there is a mixture of races (cited in Richer, 1998).
Even when the actual building and other parts of a school may seem to be equal, Chief Justice Warren argued that the segregation of racial groups in the public schools of a state denies some groups the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution. The "separate but equal" doctrine which came from the Plessy v. Ferguson case was deemed to not apply to the area of education (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954). With this landmark case began the desegregation of American public schools, mandated by law.
Busing was chosen as the method to desegregate schools. School bus transportation takes students from the city or neighborhood in which they live to suburbs, from the suburbs into the city, or even from their home county to another county. Physically moving the students in this way is sometimes thought of as the best solution to even out the ratio of black and white children in certain schools and areas. The Supreme Court ordered this forced desegregation practice in cases in the late 1950s until the 1970s ("Controversy in Congress," 1974).
In the early 1950s, Greensburgh, New York bused white children from then-overcrowded white schools to a black school with just half its capacity filled. This move was more practical than anything else, and wasn't strictly to desegregate the schools, although this ended up being one of its results (Ozmun, 1972).
To comply with the Supreme Court, Massachusetts passed the Racial Imbalance Act in 1965 which aimed to abolish racial inequity in schools in that state. A school is said to be racially disproportionate when over fifty percent of its students are minority students. The Racial Imbalance Act forced school committees to create a plan to balance those schools in their area for which there was not a fair balance of school students (Richer, 1998). In most cases, the solution to the desegregation of schools meant forced busing, and in 1968 the courts ruled that schools could not be "white" or "black," but simply "schools."
Some states were still formulating plans for how they would achieve desegregation in their schools. However, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan issued the decision that ordered all schools be integrated immediately. Other judges followed his lead and ordered mandatory forced busing for racial balance and equality (Richer, 1998). The word "desegregation" was often used instead of "forced busing" during this time, mainly because it tended to have more of a positive connotation (Brudnoy, 1975).
Responding to Busing
The idea of busing generated plenty of opposition from the start. Following the Brown decision, the courts were determined to create a system where all racial groups were represented in equal proportions in the country's schools and classrooms (Green, 2006). The Supreme Court's busing decision began a culture shift throughout the country. Up to this time, all racially segregated schools were not necessarily viewed in a negative light. Teachers and administrators in the inner-city schools were often seen as the leaders in their communities and the public school building itself was often the center hub of the neighborhood. Desegregation seemed likely to threaten this delicate neighborhood balance and challenge the power of the black communities (Zimmerman, 2006).
In general, many white parents feared busing and they worried most about the type of school to which their child would be bused. Many affluent whites feared that their children would be forced to attend an inferior school with mediocre academic standards, substandard school buildings and equipment, possible racial problems, and an atmosphere less welcoming than their neighborhood school. Less-privileged white parents may not have had the same fears for their children and may have reasoned that the schools weren't that much different from their own (Kelley, 1974). Still, parents of both black and white students protested loudly, violence often ensued, and in many neighborhoods there was complete opposition to moving students from their schools as parents, teachers, administrators, and students attempted to stop the plan to bus children from their neighborhood schools and bus other children into those desks (Zimmerman, 2006).
The Contained Unit
Soon after the Brown decision, St. Louis, Missouri began the process of desegregating its schools to comply with the Supreme Court mandate. In 1955, black children in some overcrowded schools in that city were bused to white schools that actually had empty classrooms and plenty of room. True integration wasn't realized though, as black students attended classes with the black students they were bused into the school with - a process known as the contained unit plan. This accommodated method of desegregation was in effect for a few years with increasing opposition from civil rights leaders who asserted that this type of busing wasn't really desegregation at all and wasn't what the Court had in mind (Ozmun, 1972).
In Illinois, the Supreme Court was asked to rule in a similar case, McNeese v. Board of Education (1963) where racial segregation within a school was taking place. Minority students there were bused to formerly all-white schools but were required to use school entrances and exits that were separate and apart from the white students. They could only attend classes that were expressly for the black students and these were held in a particular part of the school. The Supreme Court did not issue a ruling in the McNeese case because it was decided that the petitioners had not taken the case to the appropriate state-level court first, but mention of this case serves to show what was going on in the schools during that time, as cities and school districts fought desegregation even when appearing to comply (Schwartz, 1986).
Baltimore began busing soon after the 1954 Brown decision. Even though as many as 2,000 students were transported to other schools to help relieve the overcrowding in the black-majority ones, the continuing flood of new students to Baltimore...
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