Why Desegregating Schools Still Matters

Sixty years ago this week, Charlotte, North Carolina vaulted into the worldwide spotlight when 15-year-old Dorothy Counts was met by a jeering white mob as she arrived for her first day at previously all-white Harding High School.

Seeing a newspaper photograph of the confrontation from his home in Paris, author James Baldwin decided to return to the U.S. “Some one of us should have been there with her,” he wrote. In India, missionaries Darius and Vera Swann saw the same picture and made a similar decision. They moved to Charlotte to join the struggle for equality, and became the lead plaintiffs in Charlotte’s landmark Swann school busing case, in which legendary civil rights attorney Julius Chambers convinced federal judge James McMillan to order Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to fully desegregate every school in the district.

The changes Swann required transformed Charlotte. School desegregation helped break down racial barriers, dramatically reduced educational inequalities and raised student performance across the board. Initially a focus of resentment, busing became a point of pride. Residents still talk of the day in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan came to town to preach his rising gospel of colorblind, competitive individualism, and was greeted with a chilly silence when he called busing a “failed experiment.”

This fall, however, many Charlotte-Mecklenburg students walk through the doors of schools that are once more separate and unequal, and that have been linked to some of the nation’s lowest rates of social mobility. Less than two decades after a Reagan-appointed judge put an end to busing, nearly half the schools in this booming city have poverty rates of 70 percent or higher. Many are more than 90 percent nonwhite. Performance levels, course offerings and extracurricular activities are dramatically lower at the district’s high-poverty schools than at its high-wealth schools. Rather than fostering connections, schools now exacerbate divisions.

A year ago, when the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott sparked an uprising that once again thrust dramatic images of Charlotte conflicts into the worldwide spotlight, separate and unequal schools became a key focus of the protest. As a man with a bullhorn announced on one tense evening: “They got us in failing schools without adequate resources and then you don’t have the education to get jobs.”

Urban districts across the nation need a new direction. In an era rife with inequality and growing racial unrest, we need to turn back to the hard-won wisdom of the 1960s and 1970s, to work together to recapture the many benefits of desegregated schools, and to extend those benefits to other areas of urban life. Although current federal policy has doubled down on individualism and the false promises of “choice,” the new wave of young families drawn to urban centers offers new opportunities to build connections and community – if families and school districts will do the work required to turn ideal into reality.

The Swann case addressed the problems of segregation in multiple ways. Darius and Vera Swann stressed the value of interracial interaction. “We believe that an integrated school will best prepare young people for responsibility in an integrated society,” they wrote about their son, James. “Having lived practically all of his life in India, James has never known the meaning of racial segregation. We have been happy to watch him grow and develop with an unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds, and we feel it our duty as parents to insure that this healthy development continue.”

Julius Chambers pointed to the realities of politics and power. In his assessment, Charlotte’s predominantly white leadership would only make all schools genuinely equal if all schools educated white as well as black children. “I don’t think that those who are now in power would provide the facilities and services that would be necessary in order to accomplish equal educational programs,” he told the U.S. Senate in 1971. “As I view it, the only way that we can obtain quality education for all children, black and white, is to accomplish racial mixing of students in the various schools.”

Reaching those lofty goals proved far from easy. Charlotte’s first year of busing, 1970-71, saw boycotts, demonstrations, bomb threats, school closings, fights, and student walkouts. That spring, students at West Charlotte High School, the historically black school that would eventually become the flagship of the desegregated system, outlined the profoundly personal commitment required to overcome racial differences and build new kinds of schools. “To change things for the better, everyone must do something,” they wrote. “COME TOGETHER. At first glance, that may seem simple enough, but it is really a tremendous task. It means giving of oneself, sharing with others, investigating the problems of our society . . . and finding workable solutions.”

Charlotte residents rose to the occasion. A grassroots community group crafted a communitywide plan in which children from some of Charlotte’s wealthiest white neighborhoods were assigned to historically black West Charlotte. Rather than fleeing to private schools, parents put their children on the bus. In 1974, West Charlotte students proudly invited students from busing-torn Boston to come see desegregation in action. The irony of a group of northerners coming South to learn lessons in race relations was lost on no one. In the years that followed, school communities across the county engaged in the demanding work required to build genuinely integrated institutions.

In the process, Charlotte became a better, fairer, more prosperous community. “Almost immediately after we integrated our schools,” leading banker Hugh McColl would famously write, “the southern economy took off like a wildfire in the wind. Integration – and the diversity it began to nourish – became a source of economic, cultural and community strength.”

But the schools in which Charlotte residents took such pride stood on shaky ground. The painstaking efforts devoted to the busing plan were not matched by similar endeavors in jobs or housing. Instead, those sectors were shaped by a now-familiar combination of market forces, public policies, and investment priorities that favored the already powerful. The neighborhoods in Charlotte’s center city faced the same challenges that eroded urban black communities across the country: urban renewal, highway construction, deindustrialization, limited investment, an expanding drug trade, mass incarceration. The outer edges of the county, in contrast, filled with prosperous new subdivisions.

Commitment to desegregation also began to wane, eroded in large part by the Reagan-era emphasis on “colorblind” individualism. In 1999, Reagan-appointed federal judge Robert Potter, ruled that Charlotte-Mecklenburg had overcome the ills of segregation “to the extent practicable,” and ended the busing plan.

The return to neighborhood schools opened huge gaps between the expansive offerings at the district’s high-wealth, predominantly white suburban schools, and the far narrower opportunities at low-wealth, predominantly minority center city schools, whose students struggled with the challenges – poverty, instability, violence, trauma – that plagued their counterparts across the country. The change at West Charlotte was especially dramatic. In 2005, a judge surveyed the school that had once been a national model of excellence, and accused it of “academic genocide.”

Charlotte and the nation have now seen two decades of bipartisan, largely ineffective efforts to make segregation work, primarily through the deployment of reform strategies focused on “business efficiency,” “accountability,” and “choice.” These failings – most notably the stark inequalities that mark the large, unified district of Charlotte-Mecklenburg – underscore the lasting truth of the arguments made by Julius Chambers half a century ago. The essential task of educational equality cannot be left to policy or to the workings of a supposedly free market. Everyone must pitch in.

Around the country, families and districts are working on pieces of this challenge, employing a range of strategies. This spring, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board resurrected a busing-era strategy of “pairing” high and low poverty elementary schools. The district has turned to partial magnet programs to diversify and revitalize neighborhood schools without displacing current students. Families in a number of neighborhoods have launched efforts to reintegrate struggling schools. While these efforts are not without their perils – especially if better-off families focus their energy and resources on efforts targeted to their own children – they offer the best hope for building stable, thriving schools.

While some of these hands-on efforts are longstanding, many are in their infancy, and need to be supported through vigorous public policies and private actions that once again actively encourage racial and economic integration, in neighborhoods as well as schools. Only then will communities be able to genuinely engage the talents and resources of a wide variety of residents, allow children to “grow and develop with an unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds,” and offer the equal opportunities promised in our Constitution.

Photograph of Dorothy Counts, September 4, 1957. By Don Sturkey, courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.