Charlotte was the impetus behind a Supreme Court case that would impact how school desegregation could be implemented nationally.
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. However, because of racially segregated housing patterns and resistance by local leaders, many schools remained as segregated in the late 1960s as they were at the time of the Brown decision.
North Carolina was one of the more moderate Southern states, and its resistance to integration was weaker than in some other areas. After Brown v. Board, NC had ended school segregation with a school assignment plan based on neighborhoods that was approved by the Court. However, when Charlotte consolidated school districts from the city itself with the rest of Mecklenburg County, a surrounding area totaling 550 square miles, the majority of black students (who lived in central Charlotte) still attended mostly black schools as compared with majority white schools further outside the city. For example, in the mid-1960s less than 5 percent of African-American children attended integrated schools. Indeed, busing was used by white officials to maintain segregation.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on behalf of Vera and Darius Swann, the parents of a six-year-old child, sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district to allow their son to attend Seversville Elementary School, the school closest to their home and then one of Charlotte’s few integrated schools. James McMillan, the federal district judge in the case, ruled in favour of the Swanns and oversaw the implementation of a busing strategy that integrated the district’s schools. McMillan’s decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld it.
In Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1970), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the prior court's decision, ruling that busing was an appropriate remedy for the problem of racial imbalance in schools, even when the imbalance resulted from the selection of students based on geographic proximity to the school rather than from deliberate assignment based on race. This was done to ensure the schools would be "properly" integrated and that all students would receive equal educational opportunities regardless of their race. The busing strategy was adopted elsewhere in the United States and played an instrumental role in integrating U.S. public schools nationwide.
Integrated busing in Charlotte, NC
When the courts mandated that busing should occur to desegregate the schools, they also noted that one day when the school system was thought to be unitary, busing would end and the school board would be able to come up with a new plan which would best suit the education of students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Busing protests in Boston, MA.
Busing protesters. "Please don't take my child to the slums."
After busing was enforced in 1971, throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, Charlotte was known across the nation as the “city that made desegregation work.” It paved the way for many different school systems to use the busing plan to force integration in the school systems.
However, due to the booming economy of the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Charlotte experienced a rapid immigration from the Northeast and the Midwest, which resulted in a decline of the acceptance of busing. Court-ordered busing plans were criticized not only by affluent whites who preferred their children attend affluent schools close to their neighborhoods, but also by African Americans, who often charged that busing harmed African American students by requiring them to endure long commutes to and from school. In 1992, in response to these complaints, CMS created a managed choice plan to reduce the number of students being bused. This new choice plan revolved around magnet schools, making one-third of the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg either magnets or partial magnets, and each magnet had a quota of black and white students that were allowed to attend. But this didn’t please many white families who were denied entrance into magnet schools that had fulfilled their quotas.
In 1997, a parent, William Capacchione, sued the school system when his daughter was denied entrance into a magnet school for the second time based on her race. While the school system opposed the end of busing, Judge Robert D. Potter declared the mandate of a unitary system had been met and lifted the court order on mandatory busing by race or ethnicity. This ruling was upheld by the appeals court in Richmond, Virginia in 2000 and after the final appeal was declined to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, federal order of busing was ended in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and it was left in the hands of the city school board to decide how to redo the assignment policy for school attendance. As a result, a similar trend occurred nationwide. Busing continued in most major cities until the late 1990s.
In Charlotte, the new assignment policy which was adopted in the fall of 2002 was known as the “School Choice Plan.” This new choice plan divided the city into four large attendance zones based on neighborhoods. Students were allowed to choose to stay at their neighborhood "home school," or they could rank their top three choices of any other school in CMS; however they would only receive free transportation to their home school or any of the magnet schools in the district. If families chose their home school as their first choice, they were guaranteed that school; otherwise they were entered into a lottery that gave available spaces in overenrolled schools. If people did not choose a school, they were immediately placed into their home school. After creating a variety of programs to inform families about the new plan, over 95% of the families in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system submitted choices for the new school year.
To this day, school assignment plans and changes continue to be controversial and met with challenge. This is why its very important to pay attention to local elections that include our elected representatives to school boards. On a positive note, at least this past November voters gave 73 percent approval to a $922 million bond referendum for Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools.
Until next week!
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass