Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1 (1971) was an important United States Supreme Court case dealing with the busing of students to promote integration in public schools. After a first trial going to the Board of Education, the Court held that busing was an appropriate remedy for the problem of racial imbalance among schools, even where the imbalance resulted from the selection of students based on geographic proximity to the school rather than from deliberate assignment based on race. This was done to ensure the schools would be "properly" integrated and that all students would receive equal educational opportunities regardless of their race.

The History of Desegregation

In Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 the Warren Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. One year later, in Brown II, enforcement of this principle was given to district courts, ordering that they take the necessary steps to make admittance to public schools nondiscriminatory “with all deliberate speed.”The term “all deliberate speed” was used by school boards to delay desegregation. Circuit Judge John J. Parker led many in the South in interpreting Brown as a charge not to segregate, but not an order to integrate. In 1963 the Court ruled in McNeese v. Board of Education and Goss v. Board of Education in favor of integration, and showed impatience with efforts to end segregation. In 1968 the Warren Court ruled in Green v. County School Board that freedom of choice plans were insufficient to eliminate segregation, thus it was necessary to take proactive steps to integrate schools. In United States v. Montgomery County Board of Education (1969), Judge Frank Johnson’s desegregation order for teachers was upheld, allowing an approximate ratio of the races to be established by a district judge.

The Facts of the Case

North Carolina was one of the more moderate southern states, and its resistance to integration was weaker than some other areas. After Brown, it had ended segregation with a school assignment plan based on neighborhoods that was approved by the Court. However, when Charlotte consolidated school districts from the city itself and a surrounding area totaling 550 square miles, the majority of black students (who lived in the central Charlotte) still attended mostly black schools as compared with majority white schools further outside the city. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought the Swann case on behalf of six-year-old James Swann and nine other families, with Julius Chambers presenting the case. Swann was chosen because his father was a theology professor, and was thus unlikely to be economically burdened by local retaliation. In 1965 Judge J. Braxton Craven ruled Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in favor of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, because there was no requirement in the constitution to act purposely to increase racial mixing. After the Green ruling, the Swann case was filed again, and this time taken by Judge James B. McMillan, as his first important case on the federal bench. McMillan had at one point been a public opponent of busing to integrate schools, but when the case was presented to him he said that the facts outweighed his feelings, and busing was the only way to fulfill the constitutional requirement of desegregation. Experts from Rhode Island College were brought in for the Plaintiff's side to judge the effectiveness of Charlotte's school board's new plan. From April to November 1969 McMillan repeatedly ordered the board revised the plan as ordered and eventually submitted a plan rezoning neighborhoods into pie-shaped wedges, where blacks living in the center of Charlotte would be divided up and distributed to outlying, formerly white high schools. The school board's plan required busing and would achieve a black population of 2-36% in all ten of the high schools. Due to the greater number of elementary schools, elaborate gerrymandering was required and would achieve greater integration, but would leave more than half of black elementary students at majority black schools. The Court rejected the board's plan in favor of outsider Dr. John Finger's plan. The Finger Plan required busing of an additional 300 black students, established "satellite zones" and required pairing and grouping techniques to achieve even greater integration. McMillan was made a local pariah, and Chambers had his home, office and car bombed. When the case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and six of the seven judges sat on the case (the last disqualified himself due to prior involvement). The opinion was 3-2-1 that the restructured busing orders should be affirmed for older students, but that it be remainded for those of elementary school age. Two dissenters would have affirmed the whole decision, while one would reverse McMillan’s ruling in its entirety. McMillan decided to follow his original plan for elementary school students after the case was remanded to him.

Swann before the Supreme Court

Justice Douglas had previously been strongly in favor of busing. The Court was urged to begin their term early to hear the case, but decided to wait until the first day of their new term to begin. Despite his relative youth and inexperience, Julius Chambers argued the case, because of his intimate knowledge of the facts involved. Erwin Griswold, the Solicitor General of the United States, represented the federal government, advocating Nixon’s “go-slow” policy. Though no official vote was taken, Justice Black and Chief Justice Burger wanted to reverse McMillan’s order, while Justices Douglas, Harlan, Brennan and Marshall wanted a strong affirmation of the order. Justices White, Stewart and Blackmun did not express a strong feeling either way. Brennan, Douglas and Marshall were quite liberal, but Harlan was usually conservative, but had a family tradition of supporting the rights of blacks (his grandfather of the same name had written a strong dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson). Blackmun was new to the Court, and had strong ties to Chief Justice Burger. Chief Justice Burger decided to assign the writing of the opinion to himself. When he circulated his very grudging affirmation of McMillan that limited future action and action in other areas by the Court, he met strong resistance. Brennan, Douglas, Harlan and Marshall all demanded revisions and circulated suggestions for alternate drafts. Justice Stewart also reacted strongly after carefully considering the facts of the case, and wrote a “dissent” that would have been the opinion of the court without revisions of Burger’s drafts. Burger revised the opinion five times, each time making a stronger affirmation of McMillan and incorporating the language of Stewart, Brennan, Harlan and others into it. After the fifth draft Justice Black threatened a dissent if the opinion was made any stronger an affirmation, and so a sixth and final draft was created that was close to what Justice Stewart had composed after the first conference. The final opinion was 9-0 affirming McMillan’s order. The decision led to the widespread use of busing to end segregation by federal judges in the South.

Timeline of the case being overturned

When the courts mandated that busing should occur to desegregate the schools, they also noted that one day when the school system was thought to be unitary, busing would end and the school board would be able to come up with a new plan which would best suit the education of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The history of the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system with and without busing is vital to understand how racial segregation is prominent in school systems across the nation. After busing was enforced in 1971, throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Charlotte was known across the nation as the “city that made desegregation work.” It paved the way for many different school systems to use the busing plan to force integration in the school systems. However, due to the booming economy of the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Charlotte experienced a rapid immigration from the Northeast and the Midwest, which resulted in a decline of the acceptance of busing. In 1992, in response to these complaints, CMS created a managed choice plan to reduce the number of student being bused. This new choice plan revolved around magnet schools, making one-third of the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg either magnets or partial magnets, and each magnet had a quota of black and white students that were allowed to attend. However, this didn’t appease many white families who were denied entrance into magnet schools that had fulfilled their quotas. In 1997, a parent, William Capacchione, sued the school system when his daughter was denied entrance into a magnet school for the second time based on her race . While the school system opposed the end of busing, Judge Robert D. Potter declared the mandate of a unitary system had been met and lifted the court order on mandatory busing by race or ethnicity. This ruling was upheld by the appeals court in Richmond, Virginia in 2000 and after the final appeal was declined to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, federal order of busing was ended in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and it was left in the hands of the city school board to decide how to redo the assignment policy for school attendance. The new assignment policy which was adopted in the fall of 2002 was known as the “School Choice Plan.” This new choice plan divided the city into four large attendance zones based on neighborhoods, which obviously immediately reinstated racial segregation in the school systems, since many neighborhoods are predominantly white or predominantly African American. Students were allowed to choose to stay at their neighborhood "home school," or they could rank their top three choices of any other school in CMS; however they would only receive free transportation to their home school or any of the magnet schools in the district. If families chose their home school as their first choice, they were guaranteed that school; otherwise they were entered into a lottery that gave available spaces in overenrolled schools. If people did not choose a school, they were immediately placed into their home school. After creating a variety of programs to inform families about the new plan, over 95% of the families in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system submitted choices for the new school year.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools after the case was overturned

The Charlotte school system attempted to keep integration amongst schools by promoting free transportation and outreach programs in an attempt to get parents to choose a school other than their home school. However, most Anglo parents still chose their home schools which were newer and of better quality, while African American parents attempted to choose a school other than their home school, and were denied due to overpopulation. The choice plan proved to be a failure, illustrating the reinstatement of segregation based on neighborhoods, unsuccessfully reaching academic goals and receiving a negative response by the community, especially minorities. In 2005, in response to this failure, the school board eliminated the application process and did not allow students to choose overenrolled schools that were not their home school, due to overcrowding at high-performing schools while low-performing schools did not have enough students. The failure of the choice plan has left Charlotte-Mecklenburg students stuck in underperforming home schools. The only way students can get out of these schools is if the school becomes a school supported by the No Child Left Behind Policy; they are then given the opportunity to move to a better school. Even then they will not be able to enter the best performing schools because of overcrowding, and will have to attend mediocre performing schools. twenty years ago, Charlotte was a success in school integration, Other successful schools included Marie G. Davis Middle School and West Charlotte High School; these have now sunk back to low performance schools, predominately populated by minority students. Many of these schools have done a complete transformation since busing was enforced. Marie G. Davis Middle School was a magnet school in the 1990s with outstanding test scores, half and half integration, and families across the county attempting to get in. Now however, the student body is predominantly black and stands as a test trial to whether the schools can succeed without mandatory busing. Along with the re-segregation of the schools, another failure of the new plan is the discontent of many members of the community and many of the school board leaders, including Arthur Griffin who was chairman of the school board and a 17-year veteran when he resigned in 2003. His obvious opposition to end busing resulted in his decision not to seek re-election. Griffin proclaimed he would not “lead a board that that ‘resegregates’ Charlotte’s schools.” Although Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education is still under transformation, one thing is for sure, and that is the obvious fact that segregation has returned and the school system is just as racially divided now as it was before the Swann verse Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system decision in 1971. Now 81 schools have a percentage of African American or Anglo-Americans over a 15% difference from the percentage of their school-age population as opposed to only 47 when busing existed in Charlotte. Many test scores have dropped for lower income children and there has been selection bias towards getting the right school . It is unsure whether Charlotte will continue working towards integrating schools in a more efficient way; however programs to provide money to lower income schools are underway to produce equal results in the classrooms.

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