Desegregation busing in the United States

Desegregation busing in the United States (also known as forced busing or busing) is the practice of attempting to integrate schools by assigning students to schools based primarily on race, rather than geographic proximity.

Though public schools were technically desegregated in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of Education, many were still de facto segregated due to inequality in housing and racial segregation in neighborhoods. In the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court allowed Charlotte, North Carolina and other cities nationwide to use mandatory busing and student assignment based on race to attempt to further integrate schools. However, in 1974's Milliken v. Bradley they placed an important limitation on Swann when they ruled that students could only be bused across district lines when evidence of de jure segregation across multiple school districts existed.

In the 1970s and 1980s, under Federal court supervision, many school districts implemented mandatory busing plans within their district. A few of these plans are still in use today.

However, since the 1980s desegregation busing has been in decline. Even though school districts provided free bus transportation to and from students' assigned schools, those schools were in some cases many miles away from students' homes, which often presented problems to them and their families. In addition, many families were angry about having to send their children miles to another school in an unfamiliar neighborhood when there was an available school a short distance away. White flight reduced the effectiveness of busing, as large numbers of white families moved to suburban districts where their children would not be bused into increasingly black cities. Many whites who stayed moved their children into private or parochial schools; these effects combined to make urban school districts heavily black, reducing any effectiveness mandatory busing may have had. In addition, school districts started using magnet schools, new school construction, and more detailed computer-generated information to refine their school assignment plans.

Due to these efforts and the fact that housing patterns had changed, by the early 1990s, most school districts had been released from court supervision and ceased using mandatory busing to try to desegregate schools. However, many continued to provide school bus services because families had became accustomed to it.


After the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Brown vs Board of Education and other cases overturned racial segregation laws for public schools which had been in place since the late 19th century and ruled that separate but equal schools were "inherently unequal", the public schools in many parts of the country continued to be segregated by race. Many times, supporters of segregation claimed that neighborhoods retained racial imbalances and there was no intent to discriminate, even though evidence adduced in court cases showed conscious efforts to send black children to inferior schools.

A federal court found that in Boston, schools were constructed and school district lines drawn intentionally to segregate the schools racially. In the early 1970s, a series of court decisions found that the racially imbalanced schools trampled the rights of minority students. As a remedy, courts ordered the racial integration of school districts within individual cities, sometimes requiring the racial composition of each individual school in the district to reflect the composition of the district as a whole. This was generally achieved by transporting children by school bus to a school in a different area of the district.

"Forced busing" was a term used by many to describe the mandates that generally came from the courts. Court-ordered busing to achieve school desegregation was used mainly in large, ethnically segregated school systems, including Boston, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Kansas City, Missouri; Pasadena, California; Richmond, Virginia; San Francisco, California; Detroit, Michigan; and Wilmington, Delaware.

Among the most radical busing plans took place in Charlotte, North Carolina (from 1969) and Savannah, Georgia (from 1970). In both plans, students were often transported many miles from their homes, passing one or more schools before arriving at their assigned campus. The Charlotte and Savannah plans are noteworthy in that most students were affected, and that a majority of blacks as well as whites would not attend their neighborhood school for two decades. (The two plans ended in the 1990s.)

Proponents of such plans argued that with the schools integrated, minority students would have equal access to equipment, facilities and resources that the cities' white students had, thus giving all students in the city equal educational opportunities. They also pointed out that the United States Supreme Court had found that separate but equal schools are inherently unequal.


Critics claim the rationale behind busing was based on flawed research by Kenneth Clark, who hid research results that would have weakened the case for busing. Another mystery was why Asian students, segregated in some school systems, nevertheless thrived academically.

Opponents of desegregation busing claim that children were being bused to schools in dangerous neighborhoods, compromising their education and personal safety. Many also criticized the implementation of the policies, claiming that children were often bused from integrated schools to less integrated schools. The increased average distance of students from their schools also contributed to the reduced ability of students to participate in extracurricular activities and parents to volunteer for school functions, although parent volunteering percentages were historically low in city schools. The increased journey times to and from school - sometimes hours a day on buses - results in less time for recreation, study and (in the case of older students) employment and operating the busses costs a lot of money which would be better spent elsewhere in the education system.

Radical busing plans could place enormous stresses on students and their parents—i.e., the transporting of children to very distant neighborhoods, the last-minute transfer of high school seniors who would not be able to graduate with their class, and the sometimes annual redrawing of school district lines to attain racial balance. Such stresses led white middle-class families in many communities to desert the public schools and create a network of private schools. (After more than twenty years of desegregation busing, from the fall of 1970 through 1992, Georgia's Savannah-Chatham public school system is now close to 80% minority, and most white students now attend private schools.)

Busing is claimed to have accelerated a trend of middle-class relocation to the suburbs of metropolitan areas. Many opponents of forced busing claimed the existence of "white flight" based on the court decisions to integrate schools. Many believe that this white flight has increased cost of travel time, and increased many other costs related to suburban sprawl.

Some opponents of busing also claim that busing exacerbated both economic and racial segregation, forcing cities to divide themselves along explicitly racial lines. They contend that the "white flight" to the suburbs exacerbated by busing has permanently eroded the tax base of major metropolitan areas, impairing the metropolitan areas' abilities to offer programs aimed at improving the plight of the ethnic minorities whom busing was allegedly supposed to benefit. and that a better way of tackling racial segregation within schools would be to find ways of tackling racial segregation within cities and neighborhoods.

It is also said that busing eroded the community pride and support that neighborhoods had for their local schools.

Ultimately, even many black leaders, from Wisconsin State Rep. Annette Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat, to Cleveland Mayor Michael White have come to the conclusion that it is patronizing to think that minority students need to sit next to a white student in order to learn and as such led efforts to end busing.

A 1992 study led by Harvard Professor Gary Orfield, who supports busing, found black and Hispanic students lacked "even modest overall improvement" as a result of court-ordered busing. Likewise, a National Institute of Education report could not even find a single study showing black kids fared appreciably better following a switch to integrated schools.

Effects of busing

Busing integrated school age ethnic minorities with the larger community. The Milliken v. Bradley Supreme Court decision that busing children across districts is unconstitutional limited the extent of busing to within metropolitan areas. This decision made suburbs attractive to those who wished to evade busing.

Many metropolitan areas, such as Boston and California, where higher land values and property tax structures were less favorable to relocation, saw significant declines in enrollment of whites in public schools as parents chose to enroll their children in private schools. "White flight" damaged demographics and reputation of public education, ultimately draining desegregated school districts not only of whites but of wealthy blacks and hispanics.

Children who were transported to schools far from their homes often could not participate in extracurricular activities, since the buses left at the close of the school day.

Elimination and aftermath

Historical examples

Boston, Massachusetts

In the Boston metropolitan area, forced busing is used to describe the ruling of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts after finding a consistent and recurring pattern of racial discrimination in the operation of the Boston public schools in a 1974 ruling. Garrity's ruling found the schools were unconstitutionally segregated. As a remedy, he used a busing plan developed by the Massachusetts State Board of Education to implement the state's Racial Imbalance Law, that had been passed by the Massachusetts state legislature a few years earlier, requiring any school with a student enrollment that was more than 50% white to be balanced according to race. The Boston School Committee consistently disobeyed orders from the state Board of Education. Garrity's ruling, upheld on appeal by conservative judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and by the Supreme Court led by Warren Burger, required school children to be brought to different schools to end segregation.

The conflict in Boston over busing primarily affected West Roxbury, Roslindale, Hyde Park, the North End, and the traditionally Irish-American neighborhoods of Charlestown, South Boston and Dorchester. It also affected the community of Roxbury, a formerly Jewish section of Boston that by the early 1970s had become predominantly African-American. (To a lesser extent, schools many miles away in Springfield, Massachusetts were affected by Judge Garrity's order, but the plan caused little overt controversy there as the minority population was relatively small.)

The integration plan aroused fierce criticism among some Boston residents. Opponents personally attacked Judge Garrity, claiming that because he lived in a white suburb, his own children would not have been affected by his ruling. However, Garrity's hometown of Wellesley welcomed a small number of black students under the METCO program that sought to assist in desegregating the Boston schools by offering places in suburban school districts to black students. However, most METCO students were from middle-class black families, and METCO was not available to poor white students from Boston. Another important difference in the suburbs was that white students there were not bused away from their neighborhoods, and towns were not under court order to enroll in the state-run program but did so voluntarily.

There were a number of protest incidents that turned violent. In one case, a black attorney named Theodore Landsmark was attacked by a group of white teenagers as he exited Boston City Hall. One of the youths, Joseph Rakes, attacked Landsmark with an American flag, using the flagpole as a lance. A photograph of the attack on Landsmark, taken by Stanley Forman for the Boston Herald American, won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography (known at that time as Spot News Photography) in 1977.

In another instance, a white teenager was stabbed nearly to death by a black teenager at South Boston High School. The black students at the school were then forced to be evacuated by police personnel, while an increasingly hostile crowd of the community's white residents gathered outside the school in a violent protest.

Today the Boston Public Schools are 76% African American and Hispanic, and 14% White. According to the 2000 census, Boston's white (non-Hispanic) population is 54.48%, whereas Boston's black and Hispanic populations together total 39.77%. Newcomer professional families in the city have comparatively fewer children, and some of those parents, both white and black, prefer to send their children to private and parochial schools rather than have their children attend public school. As a result, the Boston Public Schools have changed their mission from serving all students towards specifically targeting low-income, disadvantaged groups who cannot afford private schools and have no other choice. In South Boston, a neighborhood found by U.S. News and World Report (October 1994) to have had the highest concentration of white poverty in the country, dropout rates soared, its poorer census tracts' dropout rates superseding rates based on race and ethnicity citywide. South Boston, along with other poor and working class white census tracts of Charlestown and parts of Dorchester, saw an increase in control by organized crime and young deaths due to murder, overdose, and criminal involvement. Boston's South Boston High School (now the South Boston High complex) was declared "dysfunctional" by the State Board of Education.

Los Angeles, California

In 1963, a lawsuit, Crawford v. Board of Ed. of Los Angeles was filed to end segregation in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The California Supreme Court required the district to come up with a plan in 1977. The board returned to court with what the court of appeal years later would describe as "one of if not the most drastic plan of mandatory student reassignment in the nation. A Desegregation busing plan was developed to be implemented in the 1978 school year. Two suits to stop the enforced busing plan, both titled Bustop, Inc. v. Los Angeles Bd. of Ed., were filed by the group Bustop Inc. and were petitioned to the United States Supreme Court.. The petitions to stop the busing plan were subsequently denied by Justice Rehnquist and Justice Powell. California Constitutional Proposition 1, which mandated that busing follow the Equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution passed in 1979 with 70% of the vote. The Crawford v. Board of Ed. of Los Angeles lawsuit was heard in the Supreme Court in 1982. The Supreme Court upheld the decision that Proposition 1 was constitutional.

As of 2007, students of Los Angeles Unified School District were predominantly Hispanic (73%) and African-American (11%), 9% were White. The city of Los Angeles was 49% Hispanic, 29% White, and 9% African-American.

Pasadena, California

In 1970 a federal court ordered the desegregation of the public schools in Pasadena, California. At that time, the proportion of white students in those schools reflected the proportion of whites in the community, 54% and 53%, respectively. After the desegregation process began, large numbers of whites in the upper and middle classes who could afford it pulled their children from the integrated public school system and placed them into private schools instead. As a result, by 2004 Pasadena became home to 63 private schools, which educated one-third of all school-aged children in the city, and the proportion of white students in the public schools had fallen to 16%. (In the mean time, the proportion of whites in the community has declined somewhat as well, to 37% in 2006) The superintendent of Pasadena's public schools characterized them as being to whites "like the bogey-man, and mounted policy changes, including a curtailment of busing, and a publicity drive to induce affluent whites to put their children back into public schools.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California also compels children to attend schools outside their own neighborhoods in order to promote racial diversity; however, in San Francisco the practice's most vocal opponents are Asian-Americans (particularly Chinese-Americans), who have been the group most affected by the city's plan.

Wilmington, Delaware

In Wilmington, Delaware, located in New Castle County, segregated schools were required by law until 1954, when, due to Belton v. Gebhart (which was later rolled into Brown vs Board of Education on appeal), the school system was forced to desegregate. As a result, the school districts in the Wilmington metropolitan area were split into eleven districts covering the metropolitan area (Alfred I. duPont, Alexis I. duPont, Claymont, Conrad, De La Warr, Marshallton-McKean, Mount Pleasant, New Castle-Gunning Bedford, Newark, Stanton, and Wilmington school districts). However, this reorganization did little to address the issue of segregation, since the Wilmington schools (Wilmington and De La Warr districts) remained predominantly black, while the suburban schools in the county outside the city limits remained predominantly white.

In 1976 the U.S. District Court, in Evans v. Buchanan, ordered that the school districts of New Castle County all be combined into a single district governed by the New Castle County Board of Education. The District Court ordered the Board to implement a desegregation plan in which the students from the predominantly black Wilmington and De La Warr districts were required to attend school in the predominantly white suburb districts, while students from the predominantly white districts were required to attend school in Wilmington or De La Warr districts for three years (usually 4th through 6th grade). In many cases, this required students to be bused a considerable distance (12 to 18 miles in the Christina district) due to the distance between Wilmington and some of the major communities of the suburban area (such as Newark).

However, the process of handling an entire metropolitan area as a single school district resulted in a revision to the plan in 1981, in which the New Castle County schools were again divided into four separate districts (Brandywine, Christina, Colonial, and Red Clay) However, unlike the 1954 districts, each of these districts was racially balanced and encompassed inner city and suburban areas. Each of the districts continued a desegregation plan based upon busing.

The requirements for maintaining racial balance in the schools of each of the districts was ended by the District Court in 1994, but the process of busing students to and from the suburbs for schooling continued largely unchanged until 2001, when the Delaware state government passed House Bill 300, mandating that the districts convert to sending students to the schools closest to them, a process that continues as of 2007. In the 1990s, Delaware schools would utilize the Choice program, which would allow children to apply to schools in other school districts based on space.

Wilmington High, which many felt was a victim of the busing order, closed in 1998 due to dropping enrollment. The campus would become home to Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet schools focused on the arts that was established in 1992. It would also house Charter School of Wilmington, which focuses on math and science, and openedd up in 1996.

As of now, Delaware has a high rate of children who attend private schools, magnet schools, and charter schools due to the perceived weaknesses of the public school system.

Richmond, Virginia

In April 1971, in the case Bradley v. Richmond School Board, Federal District Judge Robert R. Mehrige, Jr., ordered an extensive citywide busing program in Richmond, Virginia. When a massive busing program began in the fall of 1971, parents of all races complained about the long rides, hardships with transportation for extracurricular activities, and the separation of siblings when elementary schools at opposite sides of the city were "paired", (i.e. splitting lower and upper elementary grades into separate schools). One result was further white flight to private schools and to the suburbs. The percentage of white students in Richmond city schools declined from 45 to 21 percent between 1960 and 1975. This so-called "white flight" prevented Richmond schools from becoming truly integrated. A number of assignment plans were tried to address the non-racial concerns, and eventually, most elementary schools were "unpaired." Today, most white families in Richmond with school-age children live in the suburban counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover.

Prince George's County, Maryland

In 1974, Prince George's County, Maryland became the largest school district in the nation forced to adopt a busing plan. The county, a large suburban school district east of Washington, DC, was over 80% white in population and in the public schools. In some county communities close to Washington, there was a higher concentration of black residents than in more outlying areas. Through a series of desegregation orders after the Brown decision, the county had a neighborhood-based system of school boundaries. However, the NAACP argued that housing patterns in the county still reflected the vestiges of segregation. Against the will of the Board of Education of Prince George's County, the federal court ordered that a school busing plan be set in place. A 1974 Gallup poll showed that 75% of county residents were against forced busing and that only 32% of blacks supported it.

The transition was very traumatic as the court ordered that the plan be administered with "all due haste." This happened during the middle of the school term, and students even in their senior year in high school were transferred to different schools to achieve racial balance. Many high school sports teams' seasons and other typical school activities were disrupted. Life in general for families in the county was disrupted by things such as the changes in daily times to get children ready and receive them after school, transportation logistics for extra curricular activities, and parental participation activities such as volunteer work in the schools and PTA meetings.

The white population of the Prince George's County Public Schools was growing until school busing was started; it dropped significantly afterward. The county population is now less than 25% white and more than 65% black. The statistics for the 136,095 student school district changed even more, and it is now less than 8% white and more than 77% black.

The federal case and the school busing order was officially ended in 2001, as the "remaining vestiges of segregation" had been erased to the court's satisfaction. Neighborhood-based school boundaries were restored. The Prince George's County Public Schools was ordered to pay the NAACP more than $2 million in closing attorney fees and is estimated to have paid the NAACP over $20 million over the course of the case.

Nevertheless, these demographic changes caused by desegregation busing have devastated the county, transforming a great number of neigbhorhoods that were formerly middle-class and white to suburban African-American ghettos that are plagued with discrimination, crime, and poverty, in one of the most severe cases of suburban decay in history. Despite the fact that it is the wealthiest county with an African-American majority in the United States, crime is higher than that of Washington, DC, which is ironic considering during the 1970s the county had one of the lowest crime rates in the region.

Kansas City, Missouri

In 1985, a federal court took partial control of the KCMSD. Since the district and the state had been found severally liable for the lack of integration, the state was responsible for making sure that money was available for the program. It was one of the most expensive desegregation efforts attempted and included busing, a magnet school program, and an extensive plan to improve the quality of inner city schools. The entire program was built on the premise that extremely good schools in the inner city combined with paid busing would be enough to achieve integration.

A number of local factors made the program unworkable. The school board never really functioned to enable the program to succeed. The administration in charge of the district was ill equipped to handle the amount of money it had available. Due to wounded racial pride, concerns about closing neighborhood schools, and the large percentage of local jobs provided by the schools, the community was alternately distrustful and demanding of the program. Perhaps most damaging was that parents in the surrounding area didn't send their children to be educated in the inner city. It ended in 1999.

Nashville, Tennessee

In comparison with many other cities in the nation, Nashville was no hotbed of racial violence or massive protest during the civil rights era. In fact, the city was a leader of school desegregation in the South, even housing a few small schools that were minimally integrated before the Brown v. Board of Education decision reached the country in 1954. Despite this initial breakthrough, however, full desegregation of the schools was a far cry from reality in Nashville in the mid 1950s, and thus 22 plaintiffs, including African-American student Robert Kelley, filed suit against the Nashville Board of Education in 1955.

The result of that law suit was what came to be known as the "Nashville Plan," an attempt to integrate the public schools of Nashville (and later all of Davidson County when the district was consolidated in 1963). The plan, beginning in 1957, involved the gradual integration of schools by working up through the grades each year starting in the fall of 1957 with first graders. Very few black children who were zoned for white schools showed up at their assigned campus on the first day of school, and those who did met with angry mobs outside several city elementary schools. No white children assigned to black schools showed up to their assigned campuses.

After a decade of this gradual integration strategy, it became evident that the schools still lacked full integration. Many argued that housing segregation was the true culprit in the matter. In 1970 the Kelley case was reintroduced to the courts. Ruling on the case was Judge L. Clure Morton, who, after seeking advice from government HEW consultants, decided the following year that in order to correct the problem, forced busing of the children was to be mandated among the many parts to a new plan that was finally decided upon. This was a similar plan to that which was enacted in Charlotte-Mecklenberg in North Carolina the same year.

What followed were mixed emotions from both the black and white communities. Many whites did not want their children to share schools with black children, arguing that it would decrease the quality of their education. While a triumph for some, many blacks believed that the new plan would enforce the closure of neighborhood schools such as Pearl High School, which brought the community together. Parents from both sides did not like the plan because they had no control over where their children were going to be sent to school, a problem that many other cities had during the 1970s when busing was mandated across the country. Despite the judge's decision and the subsequent implementation of the new busing plan, the city stood divided.

As in many other cities across the country at this time, many white citizens took action against the desegregation laws. Organized protests against the busing plan began before the order was even official, led by future mayoral candidate Casey Jenkins. While some protested, many other white parents began pulling their children out of the public schools and enrolling them in the numerous private schools that began to spring up almost overnight in Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of these schools continued to be segregated through the 1970s. Other white parents moved outside of the city limits and eventually outside the Davidson county line so as not to be part of the Metropolitan District and thus not part of the busing plan.

Throughout the 1970s, the busing plan worked to varying degrees. Many schools maintained a majority white or black population despite the mandated quotas of 15% black at every school. News of school violence was reported at times, but for the most part these were scattered occurrences. Achievement at many public schools did not go down despite the fear of many white parents. However, because so many parents had taken their children out of the public schools or moved outside the district, the full integration of all public school facilities was never fully achieved.

In 1979 and 1980, the Kelley case was again brought back to the courts because of the busing plan's failure to fully integrate the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The plan was reexamined and reconfigured to include some concessions made by the school board and the Kelley plaintiffs and in 1983 the new plan, which still included busing, was introduced. However, problems with "white flight" and private schools continued to segregate the Metro Nashville Public Schools to a certain degree, a problem that has never fully been solved.


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