Turning to Busing

[Previous Topic] [Next Topic] [Up]
[Table of Contents] [Citation Guide] [Feedback] [Search] [Home] [Help!]

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Prince George's County continued to struggle to meet HEW's guidelines for segregation. The process was made even more difficult by the fact that the guidelines frequently changed in response to new court decisions. The county would often prepare and successfully implement a desegregation plan that met HEW guidelines, only to learn soon after implementation that the guidelines had changed and the plan was no longer compliant. In a meeting with an HEW official, Superintendent Schmidt expressed his frustration with these frequent changes:

Mr. Schmidt [Superintendent]: People were sold that the neighborhood school concept would be the end of the desegregation problems. Now you are saying that it is not enough. . . .We are merely asking: Will we never be through? It would look like we will never solve the problem, because there will be change from year to year. . .

Mr. Mamarella [HEW Official]: Laws like this went out for particular times and specific periods. Times change and conditions change. [26]

Eventually Prince George's County lost the battle to keep up with HEW guidelines. HEW initiated noncompliance proceedings against the county's school system in 1971 and found it to be noncompliant, although federal funds were never cut off. More significant was a 1971 case in which a group of black parents led by Sylvester Vaughns sued the school board for noncompliance with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Judge Frank Kaufman found that the school system illegally segregated blacks and ordered the county to come up with a desegregation plan utilizing busing to achieve racial balance, making the county school system the largest system in the country to use such a plan. [27] The plan was to be implemented on January 29, 1973, the first day of the second semester.

The demand that Prince George's County implement a busing plan to achieve integration was far from uncommon for the time. Starting with the Supreme Court's 1971 decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which allowed Charlotte-Mecklenburg's busing plan for integration to stay in place, courts had turned increasingly to busing as a last resort for school systems in which other means of desegregation had failed. Busing was the subject of much heated debate at the time. George Wallace enjoyed some support during his campaign for president in 1972 when a major part of his platform was opposition to busing. Congress repeatedly tried to pass constitutional amendments prohibiting busing. The opposition to busing stemmed from the feeling that, in the words of President Richard Nixon, "[m]any lower court decisions [to implement busing] have gone far beyond. . .what the Supreme Court said is necessary. . . ." Those who opposed busing also argued that it is harmful to children as well as significantly more expensive. This opposition, somewhat surprisingly, included many blacks. A 1974 Gallup poll showed that less than 25% of the general population and only 32% of blacks supported forced busing to achieve integration. [28] Advocates of busing noted that federal courts only used busing as a last resort desegregation plan, that schools often "utilize busing to protect young children" even if it is not needed for desegregation purposes, and that the additional cost for busing is relatively minor. The NAACP, one of the main groups that supported busing, realized that the issue had "diverted attention from the urgent need to eradicate racism. `Instead of cursing the disease (segregation),' as Father Hesburgh has aptly stated, `we curse the medicine, we curse the doctors.'" [29]

Given the controversy raging over busing, simply the fact that the nation's 10th largest school system planned to use busing to achieve integration was cause enough for nationwide attention. Because Prince George's County decided to implement the plan mid-school-year, the attention was even greater. Many observers agreed with the statement that "[w]hen the nation's tenth largest school district implements a vast desegregation plan in the middle of the school year, it would seem to be asking for trouble." [30] The first day of desegregation, called "D (for desegregation) Day", actually went surprisingly smoothly. Many schools went out of their way to make the new students welcome; Newsweek reported that "[y]oungsters arriving at the Seat Pleasant Elementary School were draped with Hawaiian leis, while new arrivals at Greendale Elementary were handed pencils embossed `Welcome to Greendale School.'" [31] Most school personnel noted that "the children were more relaxed than the adults on the first day of desegregation." One child, asked by a newsman as he stepped off his bus how he liked his new school, replied "I don't know yet, I haven't been in it yet," drawing giggles from some of the other children. [32]

Yet D Day was not without its opposition and its problems. 15,000 people showed up at a rally on Super Bowl Sunday to protest the planned desegregation. [33] Some mothers "planted a cardboard tombstone reading: `Here Lies Democracy, Freedom and Justice, 1776-1973.'" [34] Members of parent groups such as Taxpayers Against Busing kept their children at home for the day to protest the desegregation; however, they were in the minority, as absenteeism was only 5% above normal. [35] In addition to these protests, there were a number of glitches that officials said "were typical of the operational snags experienced on the first day of a school year," such as children missing buses, one bus that did not pick up 50 black students, and students assigned to the wrong classes. [36]

During the months following implementation of the busing plan, schools stayed desegregated and standardized test scores rose; however, these gains came with short-term and long-term physical and psychological effects. For many students, a mid-year school switch was somewhat disorienting. Busing broke up friendships and school sports teams. [37] Students had learn to direct their school spirit towards a different school; "At one basketball game," Newsweek noted, "students who had just been transferred to Fairmont Heights High School were still rooting for their old alma mater, Bladensburg High." [38] Teachers and staff also noticed many long-term effects on students. The number of conflicts and assaults, some quite serious, rose significantly, especially in the month of March 1973, when an average of 9.3 student assaults were reported system-wide each day. The number of suspensions, especially those given to black students, rose, a trend which concerned black parents who feared that school officials might "see suspension and expulsion as a way to get around the court order." [39] In addition, many black students seemed to be struggling with the fact that they were not really wanted at their new school and with negative stereotypes of blacks as troublemakers. Teachers noticed changes in many of the black students bused to white school:

Personally, I feel that a lot of the faculty's resentment [over the court-ordered desegregation] was taken out on the kids bused in here. . . .

The black kids have gotten very defensive in this environment and justifiably so. You treat a child like he's nothing and then expect him to behave, good God!! The kids are just completely untrusting of anyone around them. They won't go to class, they walk the halls and talk back to teachers. The really sad thing is that these kids were not this way when they first arrived. I've watched the change in them. [40]

By 1974, the twentieth anniversary of Brown, Prince George's County was finally operating under a workable desegregation plan, albeit at a great price: the spirit of countless black students. Black students in the South paid a similar price for desegregation, but the cause was much easier to identify - in most cases, a governor or an angry mob blocking the entrance to a school. The causes of the difficulties Prince George's County encountered in desegregating its schools are not as readily identifiable. One thing is clear: Prince George's County turned to a busing plan as a last resort, only after a freedom of choice plan and a neighborhood school plan had failed. Some fairly suspicious decisions in the 1950s by the board of education, decisions that could have been influenced consciously or unconsciously by covert racism, probably led to the demise of the freedom of choice plan. By the time the county turned to the neighborhood school plan, segregated housing patterns and white flight had divided the county into strictly "black" and "white" sections, meaning that true neighborhood schools would continue to be segregated and therefore noncompliant with HEW requirements. Clearly if these three forces had not been so strong and so influential, school desegregation in the county would have progressed more rapidly. The unexpected footdragging that went on in Prince George's County was a direct result of these three dominating forces.

[Previous Topic] [Next Topic] [Up]
[Table of Contents] [Citation Guide] [Feedback] [Search] [Home] [Help!]

Copyright © 1996 Lisa Cozzens (lisa@www.watson.org ). Please read this before you email me!
URL for this page: http://www.watson.org/~lisa/blackhistory/school-integration/pgcounty/busing.html
Last modified: Mon Jun 29, 1998