1971 – The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in schools.


Special to The New York Times

ASHINGTON, April 20 — The Supreme Court unanimously upheld today the constitutionality of busing as a means to “dismantle the dual school system,” of the South.

But the Court made it clear that today’s decision did not apply to Northern-style segregation, based on neighborhood patterns.

In a series of decisions written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and supported by the eight other Justices, the Court overrode the arguments of the Nixon Administration and the Justice Department, which had intervened on the side of Southern school systems in the four cases decided today.

Dismay Over U.S. View

To the dismay of civil rights organizations and the delight of many white Southerners, the Justice Department lawyers had argued that Southern school systems should be allowed to assign students to schools in their own neighborhoods, even if this resulted in slowing the pace of desegregation in the South.

Southern lawyers had contended that the Northern areas were permitted to have neighborhood schools and that it would be discriminatory if the South were not allowed the same “privilege.”

“Desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school,” the Court declared. It held that busing was proper unless “the time or distance is so great as to risk either the health of the children or significantly impinge on the educational process.” Young children may be improper subjects for busing when the distances are long, the Court concluded.

Limits on Decision

The Court stopped short of ordering the elimination of all-black schools or of requiring racial balance in the schools. But it said that the existence of all-black schools created a presumption of discrimination and held that Federal district judges may use racial quotas as a guide in fashioning desegregation decrees.

This is expected to touch off a new wave of desegregation orders this summer in the cities of the South, where school segregation has persisted despite the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared legally required segregation to be unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Burger excluded “de facto” segregation of the North from today’s ruling by declaring, “We do not reach in this case the question whether showing that school segregation is a consequence of other types of state action, without any discriminatory action by the school authorities, is a constitutional violation requiring remedial action by a school desegregation decree.”

The major portion of what Mr. Burger described as “guidelines, however imperfect, for the assistance of school authorities and courts” came in a 28-page opinion upholding a busing decree governing the joint school system in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C.

The court upheld the judgment of Federal District Judge James B. McMillan, who required massive crosstown busing of children in an effort to approximate in each elementary school the ration of 71 per cent whites and 29 per cent blacks that exists in the entire school system.

Judge McMillan’s ruling was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on the grounds that it was unreasonable and burdensome. In upholding Judge McMillan, the Supreme Court stressed that the school board had failed to propose an acceptable plan and that this had forced him to produce his own plan.

In such cases a district court has “broad powers to fashion a remedy,” the Supreme Court said. It said that Judge McMillan’s solution was acceptable under those particular circumstances, although it did not mean that other judges were required to order similar measures.

The Court’s guidelines contained the following points:


  • Desegregation does not require that every school in every community must always reflect the racial composition of the school system as a whole. However, if a judge wishes to use mathematical ratios, as Judge McMillan did, as a “starting point in the process of shaping a remedy,” this may be within his equitable discretion.
  • The existence of “some small numbers” of schools of one race, or virtually one race, is not alone proof of racial discrimination. “But in a system with a history of segregation” the courts may indulge in “a presumption against schools that are substantially disproportionate in their racial composition.” If such school districts have any all-black schools, the burden will be on them “to satisfy the court that their racial composition is not the result of present or past discriminatory action on their part.”

for the complete article: https://archive.nytimes.com/…/042171race-ra.html