In 1982 civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized President Ronald Reagan's attacks on busing to coerce school desegregation for targeting "not the bus, but us" (Wolters, 1996). Two decades later, the United States Supreme Court ended the thirty-two-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina, plan which had launched the era of court-ordered busing (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools). The same year, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which authorized federal funding and state testing of the nation's public school students. In lieu of busing, this law was also targeting "us," the largely minority underclass for whom Jackson purported to speak in 1982. Yet this time the Republican president was not implicitly assaulting minorities; he was seeking to aid them. Despite this significant change in policy, however, one outcome remained the same: public schools increasingly divided by race and class.
This article will provide a brief history of the school desegregation policies of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower through Bill Clinton, based on secondary and primary sources, then examine the initial school desegregation efforts of President George W. Bush, based largely on contemporary primary sources. It argues that the early returns on the Bush Presidency show that despite his genuinely good intentions, President Bush, like his predecessors, has been unable to overcome this difficult history of racial segregation in the nation's public schools.
George W. Bush would become the first Republican president to fight a "war on poverty," yet only the latest president of either party to struggle in the battle for school desegregation. In many ways, for a variety of reasons, this battle was over before it began.
The History of Presidents and School Desegregation
Each president in the five decades preceding Bush fought school segregation in his own way. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy acted belatedly yet forcefully while Lyndon Johnson moved quickly yet ineffectively against de jure school segregation. Richard Nixon virtually eliminated de jure school segregation, but accepted de facto separation. Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, like Nixon, denounced busing to coerce school desegregation, but did little to stop it. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush spoke and acted so firmly against court-ordered busing that Bill Clinton, who also opposed compulsory school desegregation, wouldn't even have to mention it.
On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court unanimously repudiated de jure school segregation. The enforcement of this decision fell first to Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who disagreed with the ruling as a violation of states' rights and an invitation to the massive resistance which followed (Roark, 2002). Eisenhower much preferred the second Brown v. Board of Education decision a year later, which permitted Southern state governments to desegregate their public schools "with all deliberate speed."
Eisenhower nonetheless dispatched federal troops to enforce Brown at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, desegregated the nation's capital and military bases, and established federal civil rights agencies through the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960. When he left office in 1961, however, only 0.2 percent of Black children in the Deep South attended desegregated schools (Burk, 1984).
After two and one-half years of failing to enact federal aid to elementary and secondary education, in part because of the opposition of Southern conservatives to funding desegregated schools and resistance by Northern liberals to funding segregated schools, Democratic President John F. Kennedy in June 1963 finally opted to separate education from civil rights in proposing a stand-alone civil rights law. With two-thirds of the public now in favor of school desegregation, this bold new approach would be popular (McAndrews, 1991). …