The Lasting Legacy of the Busing Crisis
Desegregating schools by shuttling kids across town failed. That doesn’t mean the achievability or significance of the original goal must fail, too.
“When we would go to white schools, we’d see these lovely classrooms, with a small number of children in each class,” Ruth Batson recalled. As a Boston civil-rights activist and the mother of three, Batson gained personal knowledge of how the city’s public schools shortchanged black youth in the 1950s and 1960s. “The teachers were permanent. We’d see wonderful materials. When we’d go to our schools, we would see overcrowded classrooms, children sitting out in the corridors, and so forth. And so, then we decided that where there were a large number of white students, that’s where the care went. That’s where the books went. That’s where the money went.”
Batson was one of the millions of black parents and citizens in cities like Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York who saw firsthand how school segregation and inferior educational opportunities harmed black students in the decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Like black parents across the country Batson cared deeply about education and fought on behalf of her children and her community. Batson’s three-decade-long struggle for education equality in Boston illuminates both the long history of black civil-rights activism in the North and the resistance from white politicians and parents that thwarted school desegregation. The battles Batson fought are still ongoing and are being discussed today with renewed urgency. Thanks to work by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Richard Kahlenberg, and many others, school integration is being debated publicly in a way not seen in nearly 40 years. The popular understanding of school desegregation, however, is sketchy, and terms like “busing,” “de facto segregation,” and “neighborhood schools” are commonly used but poorly understood. There is a gap between what scholars like Jeanne Theoharis and Ansley Erickson have established about the history of school segregation and how the popular conversation proceeds. In order to think about how school integration can work in 2016 and beyond, it is crucial to reckon with the history of school-desegregation efforts in cities like Boston and to appreciate how people like Batson dedicated their lives to improving educational opportunities for black children.
Batson was on the front lines of the school-desegregation battles in Boston. Born and raised in Roxbury, Batson recalled being exposed to politics at an early age by her Jamaican parents, who supported Marcus Garvey. “We heard racial issues constantly being discussed” at regular Sunday community meetings at Toussaint L’Ouverture Hall, Batson remembered. “I knew that there were flaws in the cradle of liberty.” As a former Boston public-schools student herself and the mother of three school-age daughters, Batson knew Boston’s schools were resolutely segregated, with vast differentials in funding, school resources, and teacher quality. Batson ran for the Boston School Committee in 1951, and her campaign fliers urged voters, “For your children’s sake, elect a mother.” Though she lost the election, Batson nonetheless dedicated herself to showing people how Boston school officials used subtle techniques to maintain school segregation. She was dismayed to see Boston’s schools grow more segregated in the decades after Brown, as the district bused white children to white schools with more resources and more experienced teachers.
“What black parents wanted was to get their children to schools where there were the best resources for educational growth—smaller class sizes, up-to-date-books,” Batson recalled. “They wanted their children in a good school building, where there was an allocation of funds which exceeded those in the black schools; where there were sufficient books and equipment for all students.” In short, Batson understood that school integration was about more than having black students sit next to white students. As she knew, more than 80 percent of Boston’s black elementary-school students attended majority-black schools, most of which were overcrowded. Across Boston’s public schools in the 1950s, per-pupil spending averaged $340 for white students compared with only $240 for blacks students. Over the years, data of this sort failed to persuade the Boston School Committee, which steadfastly denied the charge that school segregation even existed in Boston.
In the 1960s, Boston School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks, who became a local and national symbol of the “white backlash” to school desegregation, consistently resisted the demands of civil-rights advocates. Describing a particularly contentious meeting in August 1963, The Boston Globe reported, “Hicks gaveled the last meeting with Negro leaders to a close in something short of three minutes when the speaker mentioned the words, de facto segregation—just mentioned the words.” For Hicks, acknowledging segregation at all might lead to having to do something about it. “We’re not quibbling about a word,” Batson told the Globe. “It is not the word. It is the fact that it exists. Our whole quarrel is with their refusing to admit that the situation exists.”
Batson and other civil-rights activists, parents, and students in Boston were organized and creative in their protests against school segregation. In June 1963, for example, Batson and other NAACP members met with the Boston School Committee while 300 black Bostonians demonstrated outside of City Hall. “We make this charge: that there is segregation in fact in our Boston public-school system,” Batson told the School Committee. “The injustices present in our school system hurt our pride, rob us of our dignity, and produce results which are injurious not only to our future but to those of the city, state, and nation.” In a hearing room crowded with press, the School Committee did not respond positively to these charges. “We made our presentation and everything broke loose,” Batson recalled. “We were insulted. We were told … our kids were stupid, and this was why they didn’t learn. We were completely rejected that night.” A week later, Batson and other civil-rights advocates organized a “Stay Out for Freedom” protest, with nearly 3,000 black junior and senior high-school students staying away from public school. Organizers preferred “stay out” to “boycott” because students were staying away from public school to attend community-organized “Freedom Schools.” “I feel that the Stay Out for Freedom Day was a success,” Batson told the Globe. “It demonstrated to the Boston community that the Negro community is concerned and that they want action.”
In September 1963, a month after the March on Washington, Batson led more than 6,000 black and white protesters on a march through Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood to protest school segregation. The march concluded at Sherwin School, built in 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War. Pointing to the dilapidated 93-year-old building, NAACP Boston executive secretary Thomas Atkins told the crowd: “This is where Negro kids go to school in Boston! What are you going to do about it?” After observing a moment of silence for the four young girls killed a week earlier in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Burch in Birmingham, Alabama, the crowd joined Susan Batson, Ruth Batson’s teenage daughter, in a chant that clearly outlined the marchers’ demands. Susan Batson shouted, “Jim Crow—” The crowd replied, “Must go!” “The School Committee”—“Must go!” “De Facto”—“Must go!” “Mrs. Hicks”—“Must go!”
As civil-rights pressure continued through the fall of 1963, Hicks and the Boston School Committee only grew stronger in their opposition to school desegregation. When Hicks received the most votes in the November 1963 School Committee election, she saw the victory as a referendum on school desegregation. “The people of Boston have given their answer to the de facto segregation question,” Hicks argued. Having failed to oust Hicks or elect someone to the School Committee who would support school desegregation, the black community organized a second “Stay Out For Freedom” on February 26, 1964. The “stay out” kept more than 20,000 students (more than 20 percent of the city’s public-school students) out of school and connected Boston to similar school boycotts that took place earlier in the month in New York and Chicago. Like her peers in other cities, Batson encountered school officials and politicians who refused to believe that unconstitutional school segregation could exist outside of the South.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Boston’s “busing crisis” finally garnered national attention. It was easy to forget that this wasn’t a new phenomenon, that black people in Boston and other cities had been fighting for years to secure equal education, and that powerful local officials and national politicians underwrote school segregation in the North. School desegregation was about the constitutional rights of black students, but in Boston and other Northern cities, the story has been told and retold as a story about the feelings and opinions of white people. The mass protests and violent resistance that greeted school desegregation in mid-1970s Boston engraved that city’s “busing crisis” into school textbooks and cemented the failure of busing and school desegregation in the popular imagination. Contemporary news coverage and historical accounts of Boston’s school desegregation have emphasized the anger that white people in South Boston felt and have rendered Batson and other black Bostonians as bit players in their own civil-rights struggle.
One reason Boston’s “busing crisis” continues to resonate for so many people is that it serves as a convenient end point for the history of civil rights, where it is juxtaposed with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) or the Little Rock school-integration crisis (1957). In this telling, the civil-rights movement, with the support of federal officials and judges, took a wrong turn in the North and encountered “white backlash.” The trouble with the “backlash” story is that the perspectives of white parents who opposed school desegregation figured prominently in the very civil-rights legislation against which they would later rebel. In drafting the 1964 Civil Rights Act, for example, the bill’s Northern sponsors drew a sharp distinction between segregation by law in the South and so-called “racial imbalance” in the North, amending the Act to read:
“Desegregation” means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin, but “desegregation” shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.
This language was directly designed to keep federal civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation focused away from the North. White politicians and parents in cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York regularly pointed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to justify the maintenance of white schools. This landmark legislation therefore actually allowed school segregation to expand in Northern cities.
Most people today associate busing with Boston in the 1970s, but as Batson knew, organized resistance to school desegregation in the North started in the mid-1950s. As early as 1957, white parents in New York rallied against a proposed plan to transfer 400 black and Puerto Rican students from Brooklyn to schools in Queens. In Detroit in 1960, thousands of white parents organized a school boycott to protest the busing of 300 black students from an overcrowded school to a school in a white neighborhood. In Boston in 1965, Hicks made opposition to busing a centerpiece of her political campaigns. “It was Mrs. Hicks who kept talking against busing children when the NAACP hadn’t even proposed busing,” the Globe noted.
With busing, Northerners had found a palatable way to oppose desegregation without appealing to the explicitly racist sentiments they preferred to associate with Southerners. “I have probably talked before 500 or 600 groups over the last years about busing,” Los Angeles Assemblyman Floyd Wakefield said in 1970. “Almost every time, someone has gotten up and called me a ‘racist’ or a ‘bigot.’ But now, all of the sudden, I am no longer a ‘bigot.’ Now I am called ‘the leader of the antibusing effort.’” White parents and politicians framed their resistance to school desegregation in terms like “busing” and “neighborhood schools,” and this rhetorical shift allowed them to support white schools and neighborhoods without using explicitly racist language.
Describing opposition to busing as something other than resistance to school desegregation was a move that obscured the histories of racial discrimination and legal contexts for desegregation orders. In covering school desegregation in Boston and other Northern cities, contemporary news media took up the busing frame, and most histories of the era have followed suit. Americans’ understanding of school desegregation in the North is skewed as a result, emphasizing innocent or unintended “de facto segregation” over the housing covenants, federal mortgage redlining, public-housing segregation, white homeowners associations, and discriminatory real-estate practices that produced and maintained segregated neighborhoods, as well as the policies regarding school siting, districting, and student transfers that produced and maintained segregated schools.
Understanding the history of school desegregation in Boston and other Northern cities makes it clear that so-called “de facto” residential and school segregation in the North were anything but innocent. While civil-rights advocates initially promoted this distinction between “Southern-style” and “Northern-style” segregation to build a political consensus against Jim Crow laws in the South, the de jure/de facto dichotomy ultimately made it possible for public officials, judges, and citizens in the North and South to deny legal responsibility for the visible realities of racial segregation. As black writer James Baldwin observed in 1965, “‘De facto segregation’ means Negroes are segregated, but nobody did it.”
Over the past two decades, scholars like Thomas Sugrue, Beryl Satter, and David Freund have revealed the vast web of governmental policies that produced and maintained racially segregated neighborhoods and schools in the North, as well as the civil-rights activists who fought against these structures of racial discrimination. These studies provide overwhelming evidence that, in every region of the country, neighborhood and school segregation flowed from intentional public policies, not from innocent private actions or free-market forces. Among the most important aspects of this body of scholarship is that it shows that the distinction between de jure segregation and de facto segregation is a false one.
The crisis in Boston and in other cities that faced court-ordered school desegregation was about unconstitutional racial discrimination in the public schools, not about busing. Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s decision in Morgan v. Hennigan (1974) made it clear that the Boston School Committee and superintendent “took many actions in their official capacities with the purpose and intent to segregate the Boston public schools and that such actions caused current conditions of segregation in the Boston public schools.” Judges issued busing orders to school districts—such as Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Pontiac—that were found guilty of intentional de jure segregation in violation of Brown and the Fourteenth Amendment. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare chief Leon Panetta—who was fired from President Richard Nixon’s administration for advocating for investigations into school segregation in the North—said in late 1969:
It has become clear to me that the old bugaboo of keeping federal hands off Northern school systems because they are only de facto segregated, instead of de jure segregation as the result of some official act, is a fraud … There are few if any pure de facto situations. Lift the rock of de facto, and something ugly and discriminatory crawls out from under it.
The challenge for civil-rights lawyers and activists like Batson was that it was extraordinarily difficult to lift all of the rocks of “de facto” to expose the illegal discrimination underneath.
For over half a century, parents, school officials, politicians, and writers from across the political spectrum have described busing as unrealistic, unnecessary, and unfair, most often citing Boston as evidence that busing and school desegregation failed. The problem is that busing is so routinely described as having failed that Americans have lost sight of what this equation—“busing failed”—asks them to believe about the history of civil rights in the United States. Agreeing that busing and school desegregation failed makes it possible to dismiss the educational goals that were a pillar of the civil-rights movement and to dismiss the constitutional promise of equality endorsed by Brown, though it was never fully realized. This busing narrative is comforting because it authorizes people to accept the continuing racial and socioeconomic segregation of schools in the United States as inevitable and unchangeable. The national resistance to school desegregation was immense but not inevitable. If Americans are indeed ready to think seriously again about school integration, we must start by reckoning with the history of school segregation in the North and remembering the stories of people like Ruth Batson.