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What Led to Busing for Desegregation, and Did It Work?

Following a 1954 ruling declaring segregated schools unconstitutional, a decades-long attempt to integrate them via busing was frequently met with violent protests.

Buses have been used to transport students to and from school since the 1920s. However, as desegregation busing began in the 1950s to try to integrate schools, the practice became politically charged.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision, declared racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

Linda Brown, a third-grader, was forced to walk six blocks to catch the bus that would take her to a Black school, despite the fact that a white school was just seven blocks away.

Desegregated busing started in some jurisdictions a few years later, transporting Black and Latino students to white schools and white students to minority schools. The contentious program was designed to make schools more diverse and close achievement and opportunity gaps.

In March 1953, Linda Brown
In March 1953, Linda Brown, seated in the middle, rides a bus to the racially segregated Monroe Elementary School in Topeka, Kansas. The Brown family filed the landmark civil rights case 'Brown V. Board of Education,' which paved the way for school integration in the United States.
Busing in Charlotte is regarded as a success.

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld busing in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971. The decision effectively accelerated the slow-moving process of school integration.

Following the decision, Charlotte, North Carolina's school integration was hailed as a triumph, with schools around the country turning to the city as a model for how to enforce desegregation.

Between 1971 and 2002, according to Roslyn Mickelson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the majority of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students attended racially desegregated schools, and overall student performance increased.

The city's spectacular new skyline or its solid, rising economy are not Charlotte-proudest Mecklenburg's achievements of the past 20 years, according to a 1984 editorial in The Charlotte Observer. “It is most proud of its fully integrated schools.”

Protests in Boston turn violent.

After U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity forced the city's public schools to desegregate in June 1974, court-ordered busing faced a more difficult battle in Boston. Protests erupted and lasted for months in the New England capital, turning violent at times.

The Boston Globe estimated in 2014 that "more than 400 court orders will be needed to carry out the busing plan over the next decade." "Hundreds of thousands of students will be forced to leave public schools. Enrollment of white students would plunge. Education will suffer as a result. Many of those who were sent to distant schools dropped out and never completed their education. Decades later, the violent launch of busing will be generally regarded as the city's worst moment."

Boston wasn't the first city to face opposition to busing. Protests erupted throughout the nation in response to court-ordered busing campaigns, which began in New York in 1957 and spread to cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, Pontiac, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky.

In the 1980s, voluntary busing programs reached their pinnacle.

Following the enactment of the General Education Provisions Act of 1974, which forbids the use of federally appropriated funds for busing, several municipalities made busing services voluntary. Berkeley, California, was one of the cities that kept the voluntary busing program going. The scheme, which sent future Vice President Kamala Harris, then a kindergarten student, to a school outside her neighborhood in 1969, drastically altered the racial composition of the city's schools.

Busing services that were voluntary persisted into the 1970s and culminated in the early 1980s. However, in the 1990s, a series of court decisions freed school districts from court-ordered desegregation programs, deeming them unnecessary.

Local, voluntary busing services were also being targeted by the courts. Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District #1, a 2007 Supreme Court decision, restricted the forms in which districts would facilitate desegregation.

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Historians are divided on the legacy of busing.

Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth College, writes in his book Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation that the hot-button problem of the busing crisis was not busing but "unconstitutional racial discrimination in the public schools." In northern school districts such as Boston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Pontiac that were found guilty of deliberate de jure discrimination in violation of Brown v. Board and the Fourteenth Amendment, judges ordered ‘busing' as a remedy.”

The activity elicited mixed reactions from black leaders. Jesse Jackson, NAACP officials, and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm were among those who backed busing policies and efforts. Many Black nationalists, on the other hand, argued that the emphasis should instead be on improving schools in Black communities.

According to a Gallup poll conducted in February 1981, 60% of Black Americans support busing, while 30% oppose it. Just 17 percent of white people surveyed supported busing, while 78 percent opposed it.

In 1981, Jackson told The New York Times, "It ain't the bus, it's us." "Busing is unquestionably a code word for desegregation." The powers that have traditionally been in charge of segregation are now being asked to oversee desegregation.'

Nonetheless, some academics regard desegregation busing as a victory. School desegregation improved Black students' educational and career accomplishments, college efficiency, and adult earnings, according to a 2011 report by Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. It also decreased the likelihood of incarceration and increased the health of adults. Johnson discovered that desegregation had no discernible impact on white students.

Despite the findings, busing for desegregation remained limited. In the end, the court-ordered busing program, which affected less than 5% of the nation's public school students, “failed to more completely desegregate public schools because school administrators, legislators, judges, and the news media respected the wishes of parents more than the rights of Black students,” according to Delmont.

Many school districts in the United States are still overwhelmingly segregated today. More than half of American children attend schools where the student body is either more than 75 percent white or more than 75 percent nonwhite, according to a 2019 study by the nonprofit EdBuild.

In the 1970's the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools led to riots and mistrust.