Missing the Bus: Gerald Ford and School Desegregation

Article excerpt

In 1957, as Little Rock, Arkansas began its court-ordered school desegregation, a Boston clergyman telephoned a Little Rock colleague to insure that the church was doing its part. In 1974, as Boston commenced its court-ordered school desegregation, the Little Rock priest called his old friend. He refused to take the call.(1)

Like the Boston priest, Representative Gerald Ford had supported the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision which led to the Little Rock desegregation, but he had opposed the 1971 Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District verdict which cleared the way for the Boston desegregation. And when President Gerald Ford responded to violent resistance in Boston and elsewhere by speaking equivocally and acting reluctantly, advocates of busing to coerce desegregation accused him of refusing to answer the call of leadership which beckons a powerful individual to steer society on a proper, if unpopular, course.

As a politician, Ford knew that busing was not popular. As a conservative Republican, however, Ford believed that a substantial federal alternative to busing would not be proper. So he haltingly led the country on a search for a more palatable remedy for school segregation. In the years during and since his administration, however, neither he nor the country has ever really found one.

School Desegregation

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v Board of Education that de jure segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The next year, the Court ordered the dismantling of such segregation "with all deliberate speed," leaving implementation to lower court judges. On the tenth anniversary of the Brown decision, however, only I percent of African-American children in the South attended desegregated schools.(2)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 moved to enforce the Brown decision. Title IV of the Act empowered the Justice Department to litigate school desegregation cases, while Title VI permitted the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to withdraw federal monies from segregated schools. By 1968, the fraction of African-American children in desegregated southern schools had increased to 10 percent.(3)

In 1968 the Supreme Court ruled in Green v New Kent County that "freedom of choice" voluntary desegregation plans that did not produce significant racial mixing violated the Equal Protection Clause. For the next three years, on the important questions of "whether a school system must achieve a particular racial balance in order to satisfy constitutional standards and the extent to which a school board must reassign students to distant schools in order to overcome segregated residential patterns," the Court would remain silent.(4)

In a unanimous ruling in Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in April 1971, the Supreme Court upheld the busing of students between white suburban and black inner-city schools to reverse the effects of pre-1954 de jure segregation within the district. (The average one-way trip lasted one hour and fourteen minutes, and exceeded fifteen miles.) In January 1972 in Richmond, Virginia, and in June in Detroit, federal judges ordered the busing of schoolchildren across school district lines to overcome residential segregation patterns.(5)

In March 1974, the House of Representatives, by a vote of 293 to 117, passed an anti-busing addition to H.R. 69, the Education Amendments of 1974. The amendment, sponsored by Michigan Republican Marvin Esch, "prohibited federal courts or agencies from ordering busing of students to any but the school closest or next closest to the student's home" and "provided that any school district under a federal court order or desegregation plan in effect on the date of H.R. 69 could ask that the case be reopened and made to comply with the provisions of Title II." The Senate passed H.R. 69 but rejected the Esch Amendment, 46-47.(6)

The conference report on the bill adopted the Senate amendment prohibiting busing "beyond the school next closest" to a student's home but allowing courts to mandate additional busing "if it were required to guarantee the student's civil rights. …