Home / General / Book Review: Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation

Book Review: Matthew Delmont, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation


Few issues in recent history are more misunderstood than the anti-busing protests. Framed almost entirely as northern whites protesting to protect their communities and their local schools and widely seen as a complete failure today, Matthew Delmont demonstrates in his 2016 book Why Busing Failed a much more nuanced history. Delmont does not claim to tell the whole history of the busing issue in this relatively short book. Rather, he seeks to focus on the intertwined issues of the long history of the government shaping race in the schools, the role of both white and black communities in the busing debate, and how the media created the framework by which we discuss this even today.

Delmont first has to deal with the elephant in the room, which is J. Anthony Lukas’ still popular 1985 book Common Ground, detailing the Boston anti-busing protests. Delmont usefully frames this brief discussion by noting that civil rights activists in Boston hated it for being fundamentally sympathetic to the busing opponents. This is a good entrypoint into the larger points of the book–namely that this is one civil rights issue in which black activists are largely forgotten or moved to the back of the stage, which is what Lukas did. Lukas did focus on one black family in his book, but everyone else was white–two white families and five white policymakers. Lukas himself likely did so because the media had already accomplished this for him during the 1960s and 1970s. Delmont discusses in detail how the media, especially television news, looking for easy narratives and unwilling to do any real research on complex issues, quickly found a framework for these stories. It took white activists’ emphasis on busing as an attack on taxpayers rights to control their own schools and neighborhoods, while completely ignoring the fact that blacks were also taxpayers. Often copying the tactics of Martin Luther King and the Black Freedom Struggle, white anti-busing activists such as Michigan’s Irene McCabe, who organized a march from her home to Washington to protest busing, fed the media the soundbites they craved, leaving no place in the public debate for black activists to discuss the issues at the heart of America’s unequal educational system.

The biggest problem with how we frame the busing issue is that we think of it as a story that started in the late 1960s, with overreaching federal courts forcing northern school districts into busing plans in order to desegregate the schools. That narrative fits in with a broader discussion of the 1970s and turn against government, personified in Prop 13 in California and the anti-property tax mania in the broader context of white backlash that helped elect Reagan. But Delmont convincingly points out the sharp limitations of this framework. The anti-busing movement didn’t start in 1970. It started with Brown in 1954. The book begins in New York, when in the aftermath of Brown, civil rights activists led by Ella Baker and Kenneth Clark pushed the city to desegregate the schools. In February 1964, 400,000 black students and teachers engaged in a protest, staying away. But white resistance grew to desegregation very quickly, especially when early plans developed to send black and Puerto Rican kids to white schools. This happened at the same time that Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act, and southern senators such as John Sparkman and Richard Russell mentioning over and over how northern whites protested desegregation when these southern diehards were fighting the bill. In the end, when we talk about white backlash, we are assuming that whites were ever supported of civil rights and for the most part, they were not. Whites have effectively always engaged in backlash politics against the needs of black Americans.

Even the early federal programs to desegregate schools after the Civil Rights Act passed were poorly funded and had little power to overcome opposition, as happened in Chicago, when Mayor Daley and a racist schools chief in Chicago managed to both resist desegregation and lobby to reverse a 1965 decision by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to withhold $30 million in federal funding from the city’s education department because of its commitment to segregation. Throughout these years, black activists fought for equal education–whether through busing or otherwise–and whites, including Boston’s Louise Day Hicks, won political power by ensuring that no intermixing would take place. This white anger created a broad base of anti-busing support across party and regional lines, with liberals such as the Oregon representative Edith Green and right-wingers such as Barry Goldwater denouncing the sheer idea of busing, as the media began to frame the broader urban education movement through this practice. No one is a greater villain in Delmont’s book than Richard Nixon, who made it clear that his administration would do nothing more than was absolutely legally necessary to qualify under Brown. Even when the Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in 1971, framed at the time as a big win for civil rights, the Nixon administration saw it is as a victory for their do-nothing policy because the case did not establish racial balance as a constitutional right and ruled that objections to busing because of time and distance were legitimate. There was nothing in that decision that would force Nixon to do anything meaningful. Meanwhile, he stacked the courts with his own appointees, such as William Rehnquist, who made sure that real desegregation would never occur.

Even as actual busing did become the means by which the courts attempted to solve educational disparities, black activists were often marginalized. In fact, many of them found the emphasis on busing frustrating because it undermined what many really wanted, which was black control over black schools. What desegregation did take place led to both the firing of black teachers and to high suspension rates for black students in majority-white schools. They saw white opposition to busing and the crazy anti-black protests that resulted from it as just another chapter in a long history of white racism and that school buses had long been used to segregate schools. But these voices were erased by the media from the debate. In fact, the only black voices to receive any prominence were the few black right-wingers such as Clay Smothers, who provided succor to white racists through their own opposition to civil rights.

In the end, perhaps Delmont’s most useful point is that throughout all of these debates, the interests of whites simply mattered more to policymakers and to other white people than the interests of blacks. We see that today, even in educational debates on this blog. Framing everything in terms of your children, whether you send your kids to private schools or you move to the suburbs for the schools, erases the needs of poor children and especially children of color from the debate. As it was implemented, the busing programs in cities like Boston had problems, but black students had long been forced to go long distances to schools, at least in many areas. The arguments about local control, taxpayer rights, and focus on protecting “our children” all worked great for simplistic narratives the media could pick up and which we still use today. Only when we consider the needs of the poorest children equal to our own children will we even begin to create something like educational equality in this country.

The book is $15 on Amazon. Buy it and inform yourself on these critical issues.

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