Baugh: The Detroit School Busing Case: A Failure of Public Leadership

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Nearly 63 years ago, on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, calling for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”  He made this important decision in the aftermath of a period of intense racial violence against black veterans returning home to the Jim Crow South after serving in World War II.  His order to desegregate the nation’s armed services is viewed as a critical step in the long march toward racial justice.

The Truman administration’s support for civil rights extended to the Justice Department’s decision to try to end segregation in housing and education.  The Department submitted amicus briefs in several Supreme Court cases, including the challenge to racially restrictive covenants (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948) and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. (The brief in Brown had been submitted by the Truman administration at an earlier stage of the case.)  Brown overruled Plessy v. Ferguson’s pernicious “separate but equal” doctrine in the field of public education and held the promise of equal educational opportunity.

Twenty years later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley (1974) undercut efforts to desegregate metropolitan school systems outside of the southern United States and effectively undermined the promise of equal educational opportunities embodied in Brown.  Gary Orfield, Director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and a leading expert on this issue, argued that Milliken “rendered Brown almost meaningless for most of the metropolitan North by blocking desegregation plans that would integrate cities with their suburbs” and “lock[ed] millions of minority schoolchildren into inferior, isolated schools.” While Milliken by itself did not create the dire conditions that exist in public education across the nation today, it made it almost impossible to address the problems. My new book, The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy Over Desegregation, explains in detail how and why Milliken came about, as well as its impact on the Court’s school desegregation jurisprudence and on public education in major metropolitan areas.

The controversy surrounding the Milliken case can also be viewed as a failure of public leadership – presidential and otherwise.  In a period marked by anger, fear, and racial hysteria, President Nixon and other elected officials added fuel to the fire, rather than using their positions to urge calm and restraint.  The Nixon administration, along with senators and representatives from Michigan and other states (from both parties), proposed constitutional amendments to prohibit the use of busing for desegregation purposes and used public concerns about busing as a wedge issue in their reelection campaigns.  Philip Hart, Michigan’s Democratic senior senator, was an important exception.  He took a courageous stand as the only white member of the state’s congressional delegation to support busing, noting that “Whenever there was a finding of deliberate school segregation in the South, I supported busing if that was the only way to correct it.  If I were to change my position now that the issue has come home, Michigan would have a fraud for a senior senator.”

The failure of the Nixon administration in providing principled leadership as the nation wrestled with the controversy over metropolitan school desegregation in the 1970s stands in sharp contrast to the role of the Truman administration in its battles over civil rights in the 1940s and 1950s.  While President Truman undoubtedly faced his share of criticism for not moving fast and far enough and for supporting civil rights merely for political purposes, his public statements and policy proposals did help to move the nation forward in the quest for equality and justice.

Joyce A. Baugh (SC ’79) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Central Michigan University. Her forthcoming book, The Detroit School Busing Case:  Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy Over Desegregation, is being published this month by the University Press of Kansas as part of its Landmark Law Cases and American Society series.

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