The war over the fate of American public schools and the attempt to integrate white and African American students intersected with issues of race, education, economic status, and civil rights. In this way, it offered a divisive and symbolic arena for Southern whites to square off with their African American and liberal neighbors, as well as the federal government. The nation’s attention shifted towards a handful of communities that became overwhelmed by the conflict (such as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky) and the media watched as marches, riots, and demonstrations consumed the cities. Charlotte, North Carolina emerged at the center of the controversy, setting both legal and social precedents that would influence, reinforce, and reflect the attitude of the nation regarding school desegregation. The slider below demonstrates this segregated state of Charlotte's schools, and by proxy the majority of the rest of the nation's schools, on the eve of mandatory busing in 1970. In Charlotte, as the slider shows when slid to the left, there was a concentration of majority African American schools in the center of the city. When slid to the right, it also visualizes the resegregation of Charlotte's schools in 2015 on an east-west axis through the middle of the city after the end of mandatory busing. This is the chronicle of one city’s attempt to integrate its public schools through mandatory busing and the aftermath of that decision.

Original Image 1971
Modified Image 2015

Key: Red means a mostly African American population, beige represents integrated schools, and those closer to white indicate a mostly white student population.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1895)

After the Civil War, African Americans were freed from slavery and endowed with citizenship with the addition of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, African Americans and whites were rigidly, and racially, segregated. Developing separate systems, African Americans and white Southerners lived, sociallized, worked, and were educated in their own institutions. In 1895, the Supreme Court determined that these separate racial systems were legal in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which introduced the doctrine of “separate but equal” in American schools. Reinforcing the social customs of segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized educational segregation. Occupying different spheres of life, Whites were often granted more - and better - educational resources, such as newer school facilities, adequate supplies, and more education instructors. Conversely, African American schools often occupied dilapidated facilities and were denied access to comparable educational materials and opportunities. For almost a century the doctrine of “separate but equal” achieved only one of its mandates; students were racially separate, but far from treated equally.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

In the 1950s, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) brought several class action lawsuits on behalf of African American children and their families in the hopes of racially integrating public school districts. One such lawsuit, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka¸ argued that racial segregation violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because separate facilities were not – and could never be – wholly equal. The Supreme Court agreed, declaring that racial segregation in public schools, as made legal by Plessy v. Ferguson, violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and that states were required to provide quality public education, regardless of race. According to the court, racial segregation in schools was “inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional.” One year later, in the Brown II decision, the Supreme Court demanded that states embrace racial integration in their schools “with all deliberate speed.”

Source: Library of Congress

However, even after the landmark Brown v. Board decision, schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area of North Carolina remained segregated. Despite the fact that a few African American students were allowed entry into predominately white schools, their experiences were often brief and tumultuous. Public opposition to racial integration swelled as parents, administrators, students, and politicians protested the decision.

Initially, North Carolina adopted legislation in order to subvert the Brown decision. For instance, the Pearsall Committee developed the "Pearsall Plan to Save Our Schools" in 1954, which revised the Compulsory School Attendance Law. This provision exempted students from attending an integrated public school and proposed that the state authorize funding to cover private school tuition for students who were assigned to attend integrated public schools. In this way, white students were able to avoid the Supreme Court's desegregation mandate.

In 1959, the Charlotte City Schools (which were predominately African American) and the Mecklenburg County Schools (which were predominately white) merged to form Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. However, this unification did not result in racial integration, as the two schools functioned as “dual attendance areas.” Throughout the 1960s, Charlotte deftly continued to avoid racial integration in the public school system through the Pearsall Plan and other methods, despite its unconstitutionality. The Pearsall Plan was eventually repealed in 1969, at the exact moment that mandatory busing emerged as a solution to desegregation.

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971)

Police Officer at South Mecklenburg High School, 1971. Source: Don Sturkey, Courtesy UNC Library

In 1965, the Swann family sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in order for their son to attend a closer, “whiter” school. Though technically integrated at the time, Charlotte’s schools were still racially imbalanced, with 42% either completely segregated or with fewer than six students of the opposite race in attendance. US District Judge James McMillian heard the case, finding that racially biased housing codes had produced all-African American neighborhoods, which had resulted in all-African American schools. This is visible in the map below, which shows, in 1970, a core of highly African American schools in the center of the city surrounded by majority Caucasian schools. As a result of this finding, McMillian ruled in 1969 that Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were required to implement “all known ways of desegregating” in their efforts to achieve integration, including mandatory busing.

Members of the school board and white parents were outraged by the decision, and appealed the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously reinforced Judge McMillian’s ruling and ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to initiate desegregation, first and foremost by submitting an integration plan to the district court for the 1969-1970 school year. Eventually, an outside consultant, Dr. John Finger, helped to create a report that facilitated the busing of African American and White students; this report was approved by the court and adopted for the 1969-1970 school year. For the first time in the nation's history, the courts were ordering that schools embrace mandatory busing in order to achieve racial integration. In this way, Charlotte-Mecklenburg represented one of the most widespread and comprehensive efforts at school desegregation of the era.

The Opposition: Anti-Busing Groups

Several challenges arose as a result of the busing plan. For instance, the integration plan required both hefty start-up expenses and transportation costs. Additionally, class start times were altered in order to accommodate the new busing system, with students averaging a 35 to 75-minute ride. Faced with these challenges, many white families opted to move out of the districts subject to mandatory busing, resulting in widespread “white flight.” Alternatively, parents chose to enroll their children in the expanding private school system that was tailored to upper-middle class white families.

Opposition to mandatory busing proved fierce in Charlotte, both during and after the Swann case. For instance, several white parents, angered by the court’s decision, coalesced to form the Concerned Parents Association (CPA). This anti-busing protest group mobilized and publicly opposed busing through petitions, boycotts, and demonstrations. The CPA possessed neither formal leadership nor membership. Utilizing informal means (such as phone trees, pamphlets, and word of mouth) the organization avoided overt appeals to white racism. Rather, the CPA (and other opponents of busing) argued for “freedom of choice” in school selection and for the return of "neighborhood schools."

November 15, 1971 Time Magazine Cover

Capitalizing on the momentum behind the anti-busing movement, the CPA also influenced local school board elections. Endorsing anti-busing candidates, the CPA’s representatives won significantly in both the suburbs and rural areas. Unable to prevent busing via the court system, the CPA urged parents to boycott the public schools at the beginning of the 1969-1970 school year. Immediately before the start of the term, the CPA rallied, with 10,000 people congregating in protest. With approximately one in five students failing to attend their orientation, the boycott initially appeared successful; however, within the week, this success wavered as less than ten percent of students continued to miss school.

After the Swann decision both the CPA and other anti-busing initiatives dissolved. CPA leader and Board of Education chairman William Poe expressed the sentiments of many when he conceded that, “We can’t do anything about it, so we might as well concentrate on the things we can do something about.” One year later, the CPA’s anti-busing candidates for the school board election lost to their pro-busing, moderate opponents. In only three years, the CPA had originated as a channel for the outrage of Charlotte’s white citizens, and subsequently commanded the busing debate, before quietly dismantling.

The Opposition: Politicians

Responding to the anti-busing demands of their constituents, politicians (ranging from the local to the federal level) adopted public anti-busing sentiment as part of their political maneuvering. Due to the overwhelming unpopularity of busing, politicians - both conservative and liberal - were forced to adopt anti-busing rhetoric in order to maintain their political positions. For instance, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina (1973-2003) staunchly opposed busing, arguing that the integrationist effort undermined individual rights (see the audio clips below this paragraph). Presidents Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan echoed these sentiments, demanding that Congress outlaw “forced busing” and reinstate “freedom of choice” in educational matters. Referring to mandatory busing as a “failed experiment,” Reagan and other politicians maintained that while racial segregation was undesirable, mandatory busing was not the answer.

Sen. Jesse Helms on individual rights

Sen. Jesse Helms on discontent with busing

The "Golden Era" of the 1980s

Despite opposition a decade earlier, Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools had become one of the most integrated school systems in the country by 1980. The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board heralded the city’s progress in 1984, proclaiming that “Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong, growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.” Nicknamed as the “City That Made It Work,” Charlotte’s successful integration served as a source of pride for residents. This general embrace of busing, and acknowledgement of its success, countered the anti-busing resentment lingering in other cities across the nation, and still prevalent in political rhetoric. For instance, when Ronald Reagan visited Charlotte in 1984 and claimed that busing represented a “failed experiment,” the Charlotte Observer responded by declaring, “You Are Wrong, Mr. President.” The map below demonstrates this, showing that, in 1987, while there were still segregated schools, especially outside the ring created by NC 24, the majority of schools were either integrated or showing less heterogeneity than before. This mixing is demonstrated by schools showing an orange color.

The Charter School Movement of the 1990s

While white parents began enrolling their children in private schools in the 1970s in order to avoid busing, a mass influx of charter schools did not occur until the mid-1990s. Providing students with an alternative to public schools, charter schools offered disgruntled parents independence and control. For instance, while the charter schools received public funds, they were not governed by a state or local school board; rather, each school was operated by a community board who possessed the ability to hire teachers, set hours, and create their own curriculums. The approval of the Charter School Act in 1996 marked the advent of North Carolina’s Charter School Movement. Demand for charter schools and the regulatory freedom that they offered was so high that twenty-seven such institutions opened throughout North Carolina in 1997 alone.

Charter School Network

The network (shown to the right) geographically visualizes the connections between charter schools and bus stops in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. Data was collected from three elementary charter schools: Veritas Community School, Aristotle Preparatory Academy, and Charlotte Choice Charter School. Other schools either lack funding for transportation services or limit access to information for the privacy of their students. Each bus stop and school was georeferenced as a node while edges were established by aligning starting points (bus stops) with endpoints (schools) in an Excel spreadsheet. The network was plotted in Stanford’s Palladio program and was overlaid with JSON polygon shapes that depict individual 2010 census tracts.

What can be shown by this network visualization is that a majority of children being bused to charter schools come from neighborhoods that are characterized as predominantly African American. The slice of space located in the southern portion of Charlotte, where no stops are located, is predominantly white and middle class indicating that these children are remaining in their respective schools. Through the network visualization, we are able to see that charter schools are a symptom of modern resegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools as busing between demographically different neighborhoods is no longer practiced and parents must select charter schools to send their children to in order to provide them with adequate educations. The time-lapse map below shows the foundation of these charter schools over time, showing these foundations speed up as we get closer to the present.

A Post-Racial City?

The birth of the Charter School Movement coincided with the demise of active integrationist efforts in the public schools, including mandatory busing. The city’s success with this kind of busing, and with educational integration, had lasted for approximately three decades. However, the program was threatened when a white parent sued the school district because he believed his child was denied admittance into a local magnet school based on racial considerations. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board attempted to defend its desegregation strategies, pointing to the success of the plan, but to no avail. In 1999, Federal District Court Judge Robert Potter ordered that race could no longer be considered in school assignments, ruling that Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools had “eliminated, to the extent practicable, the vestiges of past discrimination in the traditional areas of school operations.” Potter had participated in the anti-busing movement throughout the 1960s as a citizen, which likely contributed to the outcome of the case. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools appealed the decision; however, in 2001 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiffs, arguing that Charlotte-Mecklenburg had succeeded in achieving “unitary” status and that the schools could no longer be considered segregated. Charlotte's relationship with mandatory busing had come to an end, though it still provides busing services for those who choose to use them.

African American and white children, riding from the suburbs to an inner city school, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1973. Source: Library of Congress.

The elimination of race as a consideration in student school assignment proved to have devastating consequences for the city’s African American public school children. In lieu of busing, the city adopted a new “Family Choice Plan,” where students overwhelmingly attended schools in their own neighborhoods. However, because the majority of the neighborhoods in Charlotte remained racially segregated, the school achievement gap became increasingly widened by disparities in resources and income. Aside from less diverse schools, this new system also contributed to the concentration of social, political, and economic resources in a handful of white neighborhoods. Therefore, in the absence of active integration efforts, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system reverted to a policy of de facto segregation by returning to a system of neighborhood schools.

The integration success of the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision was effectively overturned by the 1999 decision. Since then, changes in the school system’s vision statement reflect the subsequent racial resegregation of schools. In 1991, the vision statement claimed that “The Vision is to ensure that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System becomes the premier, urban integrated system in the nation in which all students acquire the knowledge, skills, and values necessary to live rich and full lives as productive and enlightened members of society.” In 2016, the vision statement had been altered, instead stating that “Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools provides all students the best education available anywhere, preparing every child to lead a rich and productive life.” The removal of the term “integrated” from the vision statement reflects the removal of the philosophy and practice of racial integration in Charlotte’s public schools. Since the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision was overturned, Charlotte’s schools have essentially resegregated. The final map, below, shows this resegregation in 2015 as a split occurring roughly in the center of the city again. When the underlying census tract map is activated, you can see that the majority African American schools are in majority African American neighborhoods. Once again, Charlotte's neighborhood segregation is leading its schools to resegregate. In stopping active integration through mandatory busing, then, segregation has been allowed to rear its ugly head in Charlotte once again.