Education
2:18 pm
Tue November 12, 2013

3 things to know about the history of Detroit busing

Newspaper clippings from Detroit's busing era.
Credit clipping courtesy of Ray Litt / via Detroit Free Press

For State of Opportunity,  I've been wading through hours of audio and stacks of research for months about Detroit's mid-1970's busing controversy.

 More specifically, the educational fall-out from the Milliken v. Bradley case.  Here's what happened.

1. Busing was used as a last resort to fix segregated schools. 

  • Detroit's neighborhoods in the late sixties and early seventies were racially segregated and so were the schools.
  • There is plenty of evidence that the residential segregation was intentional on the part of real estate agents, neighborhood associations, and towns.
  • The Detroit school board tried to change school boundaries within the city to cure some of this segregation in 1970, but the state Legislature passed a state law to prevent that, so the NAACP then brought a legal case to try to desegregate the schools as a last resort.
  • When a judge later ordered busing between Detroit and the surrounding suburbs to desegregate the schools, a lot of people opposed it. Some (black and white alike) opposed it because they preferred segregated schools. Many other families didn't want their children traveling further to school or having to switch schools, and opposed it for practical reasons.

2. The events in Detroit were the beginning of the end for racial integration in schools.

  • When the Supreme Court finally struck down the Detroit metro busing plan in 1974, it sent a signal to the country that desegregation in the schools had gone far enough.
  • Busing orders remained in some southern districts for a few more decades. But after the Milliken case, northern school districts had a particularly hard time getting court approval of desegregation plans that involved busing, or even magnet school approaches. 

3. It didn't work.

  • After the case went to the Supreme Court, a plan to bus only children inside the school district of Detroit took effect. The school district at that time was over 70% African American so any sort of racial integration was difficult to achieve.
  • The quality of education also did not improve after busing, and many families fled to the suburbs or to private schools.

Nancy Jennings highlighted the problems with busing on our Facebook page:

When I was bused in 1975, I went from my relatively well resourced all black school to an all white school that was far more rough around the edges with much poorer environment than I had experienced before. Looking back I don't think that was the original intent of pushing for busing.

The intent of the case was to make it possible for all students in Detroit to have access to the same high quality education. Forty years later we are still looking for ways to achieve that goal.