Kids have been riding buses to get to school since the 1920s. But the practice became politically charged when desegregation busing, starting in the 1950s, attempted to integrate schools.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas unanimously found racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional and in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
In that case, one plaintiff, Linda Brown, a third-grader, had been forced to walk six blocks to catch the bus to take her to a black school even though a white school was seven blocks from her front door.
A few years later, desegregated busing began in some districts to take black and Latino students to white schools, and bring white students to schools made up of minority students. The controversial program was devised to create more diverse classrooms and close achievement and opportunity gaps.
Charlotte Busing Seen as a Success
In 1971, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education unanimously upheld busing. The decision effectively sped up school integration, which had been slow to take root.
After the ruling, school integration in Charlotte, North Carolina was lauded as a success, with schools across the country looking to the city as an example of how to implement desegregation.
Research by Roslyn Mickelson, a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, showed that between 1971 and 2002, the majority of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students attended racially desegregated schools and achievement for all students improved.
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy,” a 1984 editorial in The Charlotte Observer noted. “Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.”
Protests Turn Violent in Boston
Court-ordered busing faced a tougher battle in Boston after U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the city’s public schools to desegregate in June 1974. Protests in the New England city erupted and persisted for months, sometimes turning violent.
"More than 400 court orders would be required to carry out the busing plan over the next decade," the Boston Globe reported in 2014. "Thousands of students would flee the city schools. White enrollments would plummet. Education would continue to suffer. Many of those sent to distant schools dropped out and never graduated. Decades later, the violent start of busing would widely be seen as the worst moment in the city’s history."
Boston wasn’t the first city to experience a busing backlash. Court-ordered busing efforts drew immediate protests across the country, beginning in New York in 1957, and fanning out to cities like Baltimore, Maryland, Pontiac, Michigan and in Louisville, Kentucky.
Voluntary Busing Programs Peak in 1980s
Busing programs became voluntary in many communities following the passage of the General Education Provisions Act of 1974, which prohibits federally appropriated funds for busing. Berkeley, California was among the cities that continued a voluntary busing program. The plan, which led future California Senator Kamala Harris—then a kindergartner—to attend a school outside her neighborhood in 1969, quickly changed the racial demographics of the city’s schools.
Voluntary busing programs continued into the 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. The trend toward increased integration began to shift, however, in the 1990s, when a series of court rulings released school districts from court-ordered desegregation plans, deeming them no longer necessary.
Courts even began to tamp down on local, voluntary busing programs. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District #1, limited the ways in which districts can promote desegregation.
Historians Mixed on Busing's Legacy
In his book, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, writes that the hot-button issue of the busing crisis was not about busing but “about unconstitutional racial discrimination in the public schools. … Judges ordered ‘busing’ as a remedy in northern school districts such as Boston, Denver, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Pontiac that were found guilty of intentional de jure segregation in violation of Brown v. Board and the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Black leaders were mixed on the practice. Activist Jesse Jackson, NAACP officials and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm were among those who supported busing efforts and policies. But many black nationalists argued that focus should instead be placed on strengthening schools in black communities.
A February 1981 Gallup Poll found 60 percent of blacks were in favor busing, while 30 percent were opposed to it. Among white people surveyed, 17 percent favored busing, and 78 percent were against it.
“It ain’t the bus, it’s us,’’ Jackson told The New York Times in 1981. ‘’Busing is absolutely a code word for desegregation. The forces that have historically been in charge of segregation are now being asked to be in charge of desegregation.’”
Still, some scholars see desegregation busing as a success. A 2011 study by Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, found that school desegregation significantly increased educational and occupational achievements, college quality and adult earnings for black students. It also reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status. Among white students, Johnson found desegregation had no measurable effect.
Despite the results, desegregation busing remained limited. In the end, Delmont writes, the court-ordered busing effort, which applied to fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s public school students, “failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts and the news media valued the desires of parents more than the rights of black students.”
Today, many school districts across the country remain largely segregated. According to a 2019 report by the nonprofit, EdBuild, more than half of U.S. children attend schools in districts where the student population is either more than 75 percent white or more than 75 percent nonwhite.