Berkeley was able to craft a successful school-desegregation plan in this context because of strong local leadership and a sense of civic purpose. Starting in the 1950s, local civil-rights activists pushed the school board to address the overcrowded and unequal schools black students attended. They successfully elected several pro-integration members to the school board, which subsequently established a citizens’ committee to study segregation, implemented a plan to desegregate the city’s junior high schools, and tested a pilot busing program. As in other cities, these steps were controversial in Berkeley. A citizens’ group, the Parents Association for Neighborhood Schools, led an unsuccessful effort to recall the school board in 1964. Public debates and PTA meetings remained heated for the next several years.
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Berkeley’s school superintendent, Neil Sullivan, was also a vocal supporter of school desegregation. Sullivan took the Berkeley job in 1964, after successfully opening free schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, which had closed its public schools to avoid court-ordered desegregation, leaving black students without public education for four years.
Sullivan understood the importance of making a strong case for school integration. In his fall 1967 report to the school board, “Integration: A Plan for Berkeley,” he wrote, “School districts cannot now escape the moral obligation to attack this problem … The solution to the problem of segregation is not simple. But the Berkeley Unified School District does not shy away from difficult problems … In solving this problem, we will set an example for all the cities of America.” In January 1968, the school board voted unanimously to desegregate the city’s 14 elementary schools, and Sullivan’s plan was distributed to parents and community members to foster support for integration. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that, upon learning about Berkeley’s bold integration plan, “hope returned to my soul and spirit.”
Berkeley’s plan for elementary-school desegregation started in September 1968, with more than one-third of the district’s 9,000 students riding buses. Unlike many cities that placed the burden of busing on black students, Berkeley implemented a two-way busing plan that involved black, white, Asian American, and Mexican American students. The plan quickly changed the racial demographics of the city’s schools. Thousand Oaks Elementary was 95 percent white and 3 percent black in 1963. When Harris started kindergarten in 1969, Thousand Oaks was 53 percent white and 40 percent black, and in no elementary school in Berkeley did any racial group comprise more than 60 percent of the students.
The Berkeley plan garnered national attention as a model for school desegregation. “Some Berkeley residents thought the roof was going to cave in when the city completely integrated its schools last fall,” the Los Angeles Times reported in July 1969. “Such has not been the case. After a full school year of operation, the ‘Berkeley Plan’ offers reassurance that mixing children racially in schools can work.”