The Busing Debate: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., and Denver

June 06, 1984 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In the second decade after the Brown decision, debate shifted from whether a black student could enter a schoolhouse to how best to bring black and white students together in school districts, particularly in light of the largely segregated housing patterns that existed in most communities. Inevitably, the focus turned to busing.

The first major test of busing as a tool for desegregating came in the North Carolina school district of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. In 1969, a federal district court’s desegregation order called for extensive busing in the 80,000-student school district. At first, the community staunchly opposed the order and the school board appealed the decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the busing section of the lower court’s order, holding that it was excessive. District officials appealed the circuit-court decision to the Supreme Court, which in 1971 upheld the busing order in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. If a court finds evidence of intentional segregation, the Justices ruled, then it may appropriately require busing as a remedy.

After the Swann ruling, Charlotte’s political and business leaders moved to support the busing order. Anti-busing school-board members were voted out and replaced with supporters of the order. Parents of children scheduled to be bused joined together to seek ways to smooth the logistical problems. No serious protest has erupted since then, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district is often cited as a successful example of mandatory busing.

However, experts also point out that Charlotte-Mecklenburg differs in some significant ways from other urban districts that have been faced with busing orders. Because it is a countywide system, with inner-city and suburban schools all under the same jurisdiction, there were no neighboring suburban districts for white students to move to. And because most of the schools had long enjoyed an excellent reputation, white parents had little incentive to set up private schools.

The black/white mix of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg has remained relatively stable, compared with that of many other urban areas. Two years ago, the student population was 62 percent white and 38 percent black; at the time of the Swann decision, it was 71 percent white and 29 percent black.

Two years after the Swann decision, the Court clarified further the responsibilities of school authorities and the courts in remedying segregation. It also, for the first time, examined the problem of school segregation in the North, where state laws requiring or permitting segregation had never existed or had been repealed decades earlier.

At issue was a federal-district-court order that called for the desegregation of some, but not all, of the public schools in Denver. The district court found that the city school board, by actions affecting school construction, attendance zones, and the use of mobile classroom units, had engaged in deliberate racial segregation in only one portion of the school district. Although it found evidence that inner-city schools were segregated in fact, it ruled that the board’s segregative actions had no effect on these schools and refused to order their desegregation.

In 1973, in Keyes v. School District No. 1, the Supreme Court reversed the district court’s finding and ordered desegregation in Denver on a districtwide scale. The Court ruled that racially discriminatory actions have an impact that reaches beyond the schools that are the targets of those actions, adversely affecting the whole district.

For nine years after Keyes, Denver school officials were unable to develop a desegregation plan that met with the approval of the district court. Only in 1982 was a new plan tentatively approved that called for the busing of about 10 percent of the district’s students.

The city school board recently asked the court to declare the system “unitary,” or fully desegregated, and to end its jurisdiction in the lawsuit.


Until the 1970’s, the focus of national attention and legal contests in the federal courts seemed to suggest that school segregation was largely a Southern problem. But it was also a fact of life in the older urban centers of the North, Midwest, and West--a reality that had led many Southerners to bitterly resent the interventions of Northern activists in their desegregation disputes.

Despite Boston’s reputation as the academic center of the nation, the city’s public-school system had become extremely segregated. Ethnic neighborhoods--the Irish in South Boston, the Italians in East Boston, and the blacks in Roxbury--were fiercely self-conscious. In 1965, the naacp had filed a suit, Morgan v. O’Bryant, on behalf of black parents seeking to desegregate the school system. The passage that year of a state “racial-imbalance” law, however, persuaded lawyers for the parent’s group to withdraw their suit.

Squabbling between local pro- and anti-busing forces prevented the implementation of a desegregation plan that met with the approval of the black parents’ group. In 1972, several community groups, joined by naacp lawyers, decided to refile a suit in federal district court.

In his June 1974 ruling in the case, U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. held that the school officials “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities.” He ordered the implementation of a desegregation plan that sparked displays of intense hatred and violence between the ethnic groups, and outspoken opposition on the part of many public officials.

The plan affected 80 percent of the city’s 200 schools. It called for the busing of 20,000 of the district’s 94,000 students; another 20,000 would change schools without busing. That fall, schools were due to open Sept. 12, but it became clear before then that an explosive situation was building. The Ku Klux Klan sent a Grand Dragon of Knights from Baton Rouge, La., to fan anti-busing sentiment. The U.S. Justice Department sent a group of “troubleshooters” to monitor the situation. And only days before the schools’ opening, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and an uncommonly popular politician, was driven from a speakers’ platform by a barrage of eggs and tomatoes after voicing his support for the plan.

During the first months, schools managed to stay open despite minor incidents of violence in Irish and black neighborhoods. The plan might have been accepted, critics say, had school authorities and politicians demonstrated their full support, as they had in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. But most did not. City Councilwoman Louise Day Hicks and other busing opponents held weekly rallies to stir up resistance. A majority of the Boston School Committee denounced the Garrity plan and proclaimed that they would rather go to jail than accept it. Even President Gerald R. Ford joined the opposition, stating that he “had always opposed forced busing,” and “respectfully disagreed” with Judge Garrity’s plan.

On Dec. 11, 1974, the tension boiled over at South Boston High School. When a black student stabbed a white student, 1,000 whites retaliated by trapping 131 blacks inside the school for four hours while 1,500 demonstrators chanted outside. This led to the closing of eight high schools the next day.

In the 10 years since the Garrity decision, the district has lost about half its white enrollment to suburban or private schools. Although the city’s schools are now less segregated, desegregation is viewed by many as a Pyrrhic victory, largely because of the white flight and the legacy of divisiveness in the community.


As minorities flocked to large Northern cities and whites moved to their suburbs, some school officials began to view inter-district busing plans that involved suburban schools as the logical way to desegregate.

Detroit was a case in point. In 1940, it had a black population of 9 percent. By 1970, blacks accounted for 45 percent of the population, and by 1980, about 80 percent. To counteract the resulting de facto segregation, the city’s traditionally pro-integration school boards had repeatedly altered school boundaries and launched a voluntary student-transfer program. But the board’s efforts could not keep pace with the demographics.

In 1971, in a suit brought by the naacp, a federal district court ruled that desegregation could not be achieved through any plan limited to the city’s public schools and issued a desegregation order that was to involve 52 of the metropolitan area’s largely-white suburban school districts. It was by far the most massive integration plan yet proposed; it involved approximately 780,000 students from kindergarten through high school.

But in its 1974 decision in the case, Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court delivered what many civil-rights advocates considered to be the most serious blow to desegregation in two decades. A majority of five Justices, in a decision written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, rejected the concept of achieving desegregation by combining urban and suburban school districts. The ruling restricted the conditions under which busing across district lines would be allowed; such busing is permissible, the Court said, only when all districts involved have been proven guilty of intentional segregation. In the Detroit case, it held, there was no evidence of such intent on the part of the suburban districts.

The Court went on to reject inter-district busing even when no other remedy for inner-city segregation appears to exist, thus adding a major new obstacle for officials in other major cities with increasing concentrations of minority students. Justice Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, denounced the ruling as “a major step backward,” for school desegregation.

On remand, the district court fashioned a desegregation plan involving busing within the city school district and the implementation of a variety of “educational improvements” in the areas of reading, teacher training, testing, and counseling. The judge assessed a portion of the costs for these programs against the state of Michigan, a co-defendant in the case.

The case went back to the Supreme Court three years later. In Milliken II, the Justices rejected the state’s argument that it should not have to pay for the educational remedies because they exceeded the established constitutional violation. For the first time, the Court held that matters other than pupil assignment must on occasion be addressed by federal courts to eliminate the effects of prior segregation.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Busing Debate: Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C., and Denver


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: November 17, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Nearly a Million Kids Vaccinated in Week 1, White House Says
Experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.
4 min read
Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. Last week, U.S. health officials gave the final signoff to Pfizer's kid-size COVID-19 shot, a milestone that opened a major expansion of the nation's vaccination campaign to children as young as 5. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Education How Schools Are Getting Kids the COVID Shot, and Why Some Aren’t
Some district leaders say offering vaccine clinics, with the involvement of trusted school staff, is key to helping overcome hesitancy.
5 min read
A girl walks outside of a mobile vaccine unit after getting the first dose of her COVID-19 vaccine, outside P.S. 277, Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
Education Biden Administration Urges Schools to Provide COVID-19 Shots, Information for Kids
The Biden administration is encouraging local school districts to host vaccine clinics for kids and information on benefits of the shots.
2 min read
President Joe Biden, and first lady Jill Biden walk to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)