The struggle for busing

March 29, 2013

Lee Sustar describes the sharp edge of the racist backlash during the 1970s.

IN 1974--20 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal--the supposedly liberal city of Boston was in turmoil as tens of thousands of whites mobilized to stop the busing of children to integrate the city's public schools.

While the racist anti-busing movement in Boston was perhaps the most powerful in the nation, it was not exceptional. By the mid-1970s, school desegregation in the North had effectively been stopped, often by liberal Democratic politicians who had in previous years given lip service to the civil rights struggle in the South.

When it came to busing, the policies of Northern Democrats proved hard to distinguish from those of their "Dixiecrat" counterparts in the South.

WHEN THE Supreme Court ruled in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that the de jure (legal) segregated school system of Topeka, Kansas, was unconstitutional, school boards in Northern cities claimed the decision did not apply to them since they did not have Jim Crow written into the law--even though racist discrimination in housing resulted in de facto segregated neighborhoods and schools.

The History of Black America

The NAACP, which led the legal battle against Southern school segregation, argued that the Brown decision should apply to de facto segregation as well. Civil rights groups sued school boards in cities such as Cincinnati, Detroit, Richmond, Calif., and Boston.

But it was the rising level of Black activism and consciousness, not courtroom battles, that brought the issue of school segregation and busing to a head. In the spring of 1963, the Massachusetts Freedom Movement, a coalition of civil rights groups, organized a school boycott that kept a quarter of Boston's Black students at home.

In the wake of the boycott, Boston School Committee member Louise Day Hicks began to organize the emerging white backlash, running for re-election to the Boston School Committee on an anti-busing program. Nevertheless, the NAACP was confident that the administration of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson would keep its promise to confront the issue of de facto segregation in Boston and other cities.

Instead, the administration provided a loophole whereby de facto segregated school systems could preserve themselves. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act distinguished between de jure segregation and "racial imbalance" that was not specified by law. The US. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) could require "racially imbalanced" school districts to take steps to correct the imbalance, but it was barred from using federal funds to enforce it.

Moreover, HEW was specifically prevented from using busing to correct "racial imbalances." Conservative judges deciding desegregation suits used the Civil Rights Act as an excuse to do nothing. Other judges, pressured by the widespread Black urban rebellions of the mid-l960s, ruled that some Northern cities had created de jure segregated school districts, and ordered busing schemes similar to those established in the South.

But by 1968, the issue of school segregation was hotly debated as racial politics polarized between the Black Power revolt and the segregationist presidential campaign of Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

In his 1968 campaign, Republican Richard Nixon courted the Wallace vote by denouncing busing. Soon after taking office in 1969, Nixon dropped federal government plans to withhold funds from Southern school districts that remained segregated, and backed Southern attempts to postpone the 1970 deadline for the abolition of segregated schools.

In the North, Nixon and his attorney general, John Mitchell, used the rhetoric of "community control" to explain the administration's opposition to busing.

In dozens of cities, racists followed Nixon's cue. In 1970, a mob of 200 whites attacked two buses carrying 35 Black school children in Lamar, S.C. The next year, in Pontiac, Mich., racists bombed 10 school buses. As the 1972 presidential elections approached, Nixon, determined to win the racist vote away from Wallace, proposed a national moratorium on busing. For the first time since the 1954 Brown decision, an administration openly sided with segregationists.

The response of the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination was cowardly. Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who in 1968 had declared his support for new civil rights legislation, now pandered to the right-wing, anti-busing vote. "Forced busing hasn't worked," he said in February 1972. "It hasn't helped the child, it hasn't brought about quality education, it hasn't solved our racial problems. That's why I'm against forced busing to achieve racial balance...Quality education is the issue, not busing."

IN BOSTON, the anti-busing backlash helped elect Louise Day Hicks to the City Council and won her strong support in two mayoral challenges to liberal Democrat Kevin White. But White, who had urged the School Committee to comply with state anti-discrimination laws, shifted to the right. In 1972, he declared mandatory busing "fundamentally unworkable" and argued that "the choice of the school should rest with the family."

But Black Bostonians refused to wait for a court decision to improve their schools. In the mid-1960s, Black parents had financed "Operation Exodus" to privately bus their children to better schools. In 1968, Black students and radical teachers established a handful of alternative schools and organized walkouts and boycotts that lasted through the 1971 school year. In 1971 and 1973, a Communist Party member ran for a seat on the School Committee, winning some 50,000 votes each time.

As was the case in several other cities, the Boston political establishment was faced with a choice between continued Black insurgency and a white backlash to school busing. Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, ruling on a desegregation suit brought by the NAACP, ordered the School Committee to desegregate by the fall of 1974.

However, Garrity did not specify how busing should be carried out, leaving the matter to the racists who controlled the School Committee. The School Committee, of course, organized racist anti-busing demonstrations. As Black schoolchildren were bused into all-white neighborhoods like South Boston, they were greeted with rocks and bottles and cries of "niggers, go home." These scenes were repeated regularly for the next few years, until an uneasy truce was established.

The anti-busing demonstrations were among the worst examples of the era's white racism--which historically has had its strongest appeal when workers are looking for scapegoats for declining living standards, something that was certainly the case in Boston in the mid-I970s.

However unpopular among white workers, though, busing, by partially countering the effects of residential segregation, prepares the ground for class unity between Black and white workers.

Yet even where busing has been established, its effects were soon wiped out by "white flight" to the suburbs and court decisions that limited cross-district busing between most Black inner city schools and white suburban schools.

Although the number of Blacks attending segregated schools in the South declined, most of this integration has taken place in rural areas. Since the mid-1970s, the nation's public schools have become more segregated than before the Brown decision.

This article first appeared in the June 1988 issue of Socialist Worker.

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