The idea of busing children to school for the purpose of racial integration was an idea of the late 1960s. It was an idea that came nearly a generation after the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), overturned part of the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) SCOTUS decision that separate but equal was a good way to manage life in the United States. The court wrote in its 9-0 Brown decision that “separate but equal” was inherently not good for schools, and violated the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Brown family sued because their child was not allowed to attend the primary school nearest their home simply because she was black. She was forced bused to a segregated black school. Note that busing was a new idea for integrating schools, but not for segregating them. After the court ruled, young Ms. Brown was allowed to be the only black student in her, otherwise all white school. Nothing further was detailed in the court’s decision about how integration of schools in general was to proceed. Brown was law, but little was done to remedy wide-spread, extreme school segregation.
Ten years later, along came the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act abolished all the old Jim Crow laws that kept Southern, public venues, including schools, segregated and allowed general use of all public facilities. The fact that we are dealing with laws is important, but will lie dormant for a bit to keep the story chronological.
Jump ahead to 1971 and we find that schools are still vastly segregated by race, but a few districts are finally forced to consider ways to comply with the now 17-year-old Brown v. Board decision. In response, the bigger problem of where people live, generally grouped by wealth and/or color, fostering segregation, was eschewed for easier, immediate fixes. Busing black kids into white schools was the idea that gained traction mostly because it didn’t involve white people being inconvenienced any more than having black kids come into their classrooms, which turned out to be problem enough. No white kids were going to be force bused, but still, busing’s legality was challenged. SCOTUS intervenes again. In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) it was decided that busing would be allowed as “a remedial technique” to comply with the mandates of Brown. Now is the time to recall that all of this applies to other laws. We start to see the differences between de jure (by law) and de facto (by nature or tradition). Why the distinction? The decisions in Brown and Swann only applied to states that had laws against school integration––all the Southern states and, oddly enough, Delaware. All the Northern states, including Delaware, had schools just as segregated as the South, but unlike Delaware, were de facto, not de jure and exempt from the mandates of Brown and Swann.
There was one more last-ditch try in 1974 to stop busing by Sen. Edward Gurney (R-FL). Gurney attached an amendment to an educational spending bill that would make busing for racial equality illegal. The Senate vote failed by one mainly because of the Gurney amendment. Then Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware cast a vote against the bill, not because of the spending, because of the anti-busing amendment. Two observations here: one is that this practice of adding non-related amendments to bills is why some votes seem so out of character for some Congress members. The main bill on school finances was badly needed, but the eleventh-hour amendment to stop busing, and had nothing to do with the spending bill, was what caused the failed vote. In the end, federally mandated busing was safe, but the schools didn’t get the money. The other observation is that this is why now candidate Joe Biden can say he backs busing to eliminate intentional, de jure segregation. His record is different regarding de facto segregation, and he isn’t alone. This is the part that gets tough on Northern liberals and makes school integration so difficult.
Above is a short history, but stories always help the cause, and there are many. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) has her success story of being voluntarily bused to integrate into a high-quality Oakland, California school. She was part of the second class to be bused in 1969 when she started school. Oakland was not under the purview of Brown or Swann because it had no segregation laws. Oakland was trying to integrate their schools, not because they were being forced to––segregated schools just didn’t seem right to them. It is of note that both black and white kids were bused.
I have a story too. I am an old, white man who was never bused and attended mostly white schools, but was involved as a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky in 1975. That was when Louisville was finally being forced to integrate schools because they did have segregation laws under Jim Crow. I worked in the Louisville Independent School District that was an urban (nearly all black) district. I worked there as an elementary teacher for five years. During that time politicians became involved trying to achieve racial equality. The city schools were like a donut-hole in the middle of the donut––Jefferson County. Kentucky law makes the county responsible for educating all of its students, but as long as the Independent District was functioning, Jefferson County could concentrate on the nearly all white population around the city limits. The problems arose when it came time to integrate. The Independent District (my employer) had two major issues: no buses because the schools were filled with government housing project kids and neighborhoods within walking distance, and secondly, there were no white kids, to speak of, to integrate. The decision was made to bankrupt the city school system and force the county to serve black children too. The two districts consolidated and all the black kids were bused out of the city into the county schools. Here’s where Delaware and Joe Biden come back into play. Remember, Delaware was the only Northern state with de jure segregated schools, so, unlike Oakland and Sen. Harris, they were indeed under the purview of Brown and Swann. Delaware decided to go a similar route as Kentucky and merge 11 Wilmington districts (10 white districts and one black) and apportion the kids to schools like cutting a pie. Again, busing black kids out of the central city where they lived to white schools from the 10 former suburban districts, often far from home.
My story is far from over but I’ve kept you, dear readers, long enough. We haven’t finished the Louisville story, we haven’t finished with Joe Biden, and we haven’t even touched any real solutions. Liberals are complicit and I’ll scold them next time. Thanks for reading and, like the Terminator, I’ll be back.