5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America

Donna Patricia Ward - April 1, 2017

5 Explosive U.S. Supreme Court Cases That Defined Race in America
Bused students from the suburbs to the city in Charlotte, North Carolina, circa 1973. Public Domain

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education – 1971

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants could no longer be enforced through the courts, those that could move into suburban housing did so. Suburban communities were thought to be utopian and self-sustaining societies. Everything a person required could be found at the nearby strip mall, department store, or grocery store. Boulevards and streets wound through neighborhoods while interstate highways allowed suburbanites to travel through major metropolitan areas without ever seeing them. Schools reflected the ethnicity of the neighborhoods in which they were located.

New housing developments sprung up in the suburbs almost overnight. Fleeing the over-used and over-crowded city-center housing, they created new ethnic suburban enclaves. Developers were not coy in their advertising. They clearly stated if a new development was for whites or for people of color. With self-segregation in full swing, public schools began to look as they did in the decades before the Brown decision.

When the city school district consolidated with its county school district, the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg district had to devise a plan to integrate their schools as required by law. Busing was the only way to integrate the schools. For Charlotte, this meant creating a plan where inner city children, who were mostly black, were bussed out to white suburban schools and for white suburban kids to be bussed into inner city schools. Parents were not happy and violent protests erupted.

Parents did not want their children to go to integrated schools. White suburban parents wanted their children to remain in their neighborhood schools with their friends. For black students they did not want affluent whites in their schools as they brought with them a drug culture that interfered with the learning environment. As tempers flared, even the lawyers that argued for Swann had their homes firebombed and crosses burned in their front yards.

At issue in the Swann case was if bussing was a mode for which school districts throughout the country could ensure integration of their schools. When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that bussing was the only way to integrate schools, a federal mandate was placed upon all districts. In the Court’s decision, they acknowledged that at some point, districts would be racially equal and then the mandatory busing would end, leaving the school districts to maintain equality on their own.

Throughout the 1970s and in the 1980s, mandated busing worked in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. As workers fled the Rust Belt cities of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio for the booming economy of the Queen City, busing again became a contentious matter. Eventually, mandated busing gave way to magnet and choice schools. For families that wanted to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood, the district would not provide transportation. Parents either had to drive their children or they had to take public transportation.