Darius L. Swann, Father in Case That Led to Landmark Busing Decision, Dies at 95

By Mark Walsh — March 25, 2020 3 min read
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The Rev. Darius L. Swann, a Presbyterian minister whose efforts in 1964 to send his son to an integrated school in Charlotte, N.C., led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding busing as a desegregation tool, has died at age 95.

Swann died March 8 in Centreville, Va. The cause was pneumonia, his wife, Vera Swann, told The Washington Post this week.

It was the name of the son, James E. Swann, that graced the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the justices ruled unanimously that once school systems had failed to come up with acceptable desegregation remedies, federal courts had broad equitable powers to devise remedial plans, including for busing.

The Swann family had moved to Charlotte in 1964 after Darius Swann had served as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in China and India. The Swanns attempted to send James, then 6 years old, to Seversville Elementary School, a nearby school that was integrated under an early desegregation plan the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district was operating under at the time.

“Our son, James, was going into the first grade. We wanted him to be in an integrated school,” Darius Swann told The Charlotte Observer in a 1989 interview, as recounted in a story this week.

Swann wrote to the school board, the Observer said, that because his son had grown up mostly in India, he had an “unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds, and we feel it is our duty as parents to insure that this healthy development continue.”

But most black students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg were still being assigned to all-black schools, and James Swann was given a note from the principal of Seversville Elementary saying the boy would have to enroll in the nearby all-black school before the family could apply to transfer him to the integrated school, the Post reported.

That led to the legal challenge filed in 1965 in which the Swanns were the lead plaintiffs and represented by Julius L. Chambers of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board adopted a “freedom-of-choice” plan, then widely used in the South to achieve modest levels of desegregation. Under than plan, James and his sister, Edith, were assigned to a school in a white neighborhood, the Observer said.

The Swann family left Charlotte in 1967. Darius Swann pursued and eventually earned a doctorate in Asian theater at the University of Hawaii. But the lawsuit that bore the family’s name was reopened with additional plaintiffs to challenge the adequacy of the freedom-of-choice plan.

In 1969, U.S. District Judge James McMillan of Charlotte ruled that the school district was operating racially “dual systems” and he ordered busing as a remedy.

The case went to the Supreme Court for argument in the fall of 1970. Historical accounts and papers of the justices later revealed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Hugo L. Black initially opposed affirming McMillan’s busing order. But support for the order among other justices eventually led to a unanimous opinion, which Burger assigned to himself.

“We find no basis for holding that the local school authorities may not be required to employ bus transportation as one tool of school desegregation,” Burger wrote. “Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school.”

The busing plan in Charlotte-Mecklenburg had begin in the fall of 1970, even before the Supreme Court had ruled on it. McMillan received death threats, white parents threw rocks at buses, and disturbances between white and black students closed some schools temporarily.

But eventually, the Charlotte metropolitan area came to embrace its desegregation plan, and it became a point of pride. Race-based assignment policies ended for the district by 1999. Elsewhere around the country, though, busing orders were met with resistance, most notably in Boston.

Swann is survived by his wife, son, and daughter, as well as two grandchildren and one great granddaughter, according to the Post.

In a 1996 interview with the Observer, at a time when desegregation cases and remedies were being scaled back, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s would be within three years, Swann had a somewhat resigned reflection on the legacy of the case.

“Integration to me has always been people coming together, each bringing their own gifts, which both share and appreciate, a diversity that should enrich us all,” he told the newspaper. “Simply to put people together does not work.

“I haven’t turned my back on the ideal,” Swann added. “There are more pressing things we must do now. Somewhere down the road, I feel our paths will meet, blacks and white. But I do not see it happening in the near future.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.