The Tragedy of Busing Revisited
Photograph Courtesy University of Memphis: Mississippi Valley Collection
Editor's note: Fifty years ago this coming October, the Memphis City Schools system was desegregated by 13 first-graders chosen, with considerable difficulty, by leaders of the NAACP. At first the process was slow; ten years later, the federal courts speeded things up by approving forced busing to achieve integration.
By 1974, more than 30,000 students had left the Memphis public schools, and Memphis had the largest private-school system in the country. Busing was a life-changing and city-transforming experience. The people who remember the early 1970s — black and white, parent and student, teacher and administrator — still say that.
Today, in the spring of 2011, we are at another key moment in our educational history. Barring intervention by the courts or state legislature, Memphis voters will likely decide on March 8th whether to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter and transfer control to Shelby County Schools, effectively merging the two systems.
This story is built around an earlier one, originally published in the December 1995 issue of this magazine. John Branston, the author, updated and included that article in his 2004 book, Rowdy Memphis: The South Unscripted. Our thought is that publishing a revised version at this time will provide historical perspective as Memphians try to make up their minds how to vote, and, if the referendum passes, a new system is invented.
Many of the principal figures Branston interviewed in 1995 are no longer alive, including federal judge Robert McRae, who presided over Memphis desegregation cases for 20 years, and MCS attorney Louis Lucas, who argued the case for busing as a desegregation tool; McRae died in 2004, Lucas in 2005. But other key players are still active in public life, and while many are retired, most are following recent events with keen interest. Their observations are included here, along with those of others who well remember the tumultuous years of 1973 and 1974 that tore Memphis apart.
So as this city and this county begin the process of reinvention that might possibly create a unified school system of 150,000 students — roughly the same size MCS was in 1970 — we look back, but we also look forward. Another era of change has begun.
On a Memphis summer morning in 1971, seventeen years after the highest court in the land outlawed segregation, the mayor of Memphis, Henry Loeb, pulled up to the intersection of Poplar and Third, glanced out his window, and saw the familiar face of U.S. District Judge Robert S. McRae.
Loeb, who was on the passenger side next to his plainclothes policeman driver, rolled down the window, looked at McRae, and hollered, "Hey, you son-of-a-bitch, quit integratin' those schools," then grinned his famous grin and sped away.
The mayor pretty much expressed the sentiments of the majority of his white constituents at that time. But Judge McRae wasn't about to quit "integratin'" those schools. In fact, he had only just begun.
The next year, McRae ordered desegregation Plan A to bus 13,789 students. A year later, he followed it up with Plan Z, which called for the busing of nearly 40,000 students. Those students and their schools would knock down the legal walls of segregation. Or the legal walls, at least.
The issue of busing would dominate the political and social life of this city during the 1970s, and well into the next decade. Busing was not unique to Memphis, of course. In city after city in both the North and South, federal courts called upon local school boards to use their public school systems as battering rams for integration.
With an evident eye to the future, the courts' chosen method involved children. Other approaches that might have focused upon adults — for example, the use of property-tax rebates to encourage integrated neighborhoods — were put aside. As a result, the American dream of the melting pot and equal opportunity was set against the American dream of choosing a home and raising a family in a nice neighborhood with good schools.
It was no contest. Tens of thousands of white Memphians, some racist, many not, fled the city for points north, south, and east. Looking back, it is difficult to imagine anything that the most powerful pro-suburban real estate developers and politicians in town could have concocted that would have done more to accelerate urban sprawl and the growth of Shelby County, and contributed more to the decline of the city of Memphis and its public schools.
Plan Z failed for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the main one is that, in a democracy, people cannot be denied the right to vote with their feet. And Memphis and Shelby County, with its peculiar geography, two-headed government, separate school systems, and powerful churches, gave them options ranging from private schools to county schools to Mississippi schools just minutes away.
One of the most prophetic statements in the massive court record of Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education, the original Memphis schools desegregation case, was made by Federal Appeals Court Judge Paul C. Weick. In 1972, the appeals court upheld Memphis' first court-ordered busing plan, called Plan A, on a 2-1 vote. Weick dissented.
"The average American couple who are raising their children scrape and save money to buy a home in a nice residential neighborhood near a public school," he wrote. "One can imagine their frustration when they find their plans have been destroyed by the judgment of federal courts. . . . The burden of eliminating all the ills of society should not be placed on public school systems and innocent school children."
Busing didn't create the suburbs, of course, but it certainly accelerated a process that was already well under way. In the two previous decades (1950-1970), the white population of Memphis had decreased by 2 percent while the black population had increased 2 percent, according to census reports. That decline of the white population would have been even greater had it not been for the annexation of parts of East Memphis, Frayser, Parkway Village, and Oakhaven during that time. And busing came at a time when developers were building suburban office complexes, and when governments were building the roads to get people to the far reaches of Shelby County. Busing gave thousands of white Memphians one more reason to use them.
What was lost in the process, more than anything else, was something best described as "connectedness," for want of a better word. Connectedness is the difference between a geographic area and a neighborhood, between school attendance and school spirit, and between a group of people and a caring community. Memphis still hurts for connectedness, and busing is partly to blame.
In its follow-up to the 1954 Brown V. Topeka Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court said schools must be integrated with "all deliberate speed." In Memphis and the states of the Deep South, "all deliberate speed" meant very slow. In 1960, there still were no black students in mixed schools in Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.
In 1958, 8-year-old Gerald E. Young tried to enroll at all-white Vollentine Elementary in Memphis but was turned away by the attendance officer, the superintendent, and finally the school board.
In 1960, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit, Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education. Dr. T. W. Northcross was a Memphis dentist whose daughter Deborah was 8 years old. He was on the executive committee of the NAACP and an independent businessman who could handle reprisals better than others. At the time, there were 53,142 white children and 42,061 black children in the system, all attending segregated schools.
"You have to remember where we were coming from," says former Memphis NAACP Executive Secretary Maxine Smith. "In the years after Brown, absolutely nothing was done here to integrate our schools. They started building all-black schools like Carver and Lester near white neighborhoods just to keep [blacks] out of schools like Southside and East. It was shameful."
Maxine Smith helped persuade parents to let their children be used as pioneers when desegregation began in 1961. "I bet we went to 200 homes trying to get volunteers," says Smith. "It was difficult to persuade the mothers that this was good for their kids."
Compounding the problem, classes had already started when integration began that October, and students were enrolled in neighborhood schools with their friends. And in the cruelest stroke of all, the desegregation plan called for integrating one grade at a time, starting with the first grade.
The 13 students whose parents eventually agreed to participate were assigned to four schools, with no more than four black students at any one school. Dwania Kyles said classmates asked to see her tail "because black people were supposed to have tails." Michael Willis, who later changed his name to Menelik Fombi, was called "rich nigger" because he came to school in his parents' Cadillac. Deep down inside, he admitted years later, he wished he had not gone through it. For E.C. Marcel Freeman, the desegregation experience was not as traumatic.
Now E.C. Fentress, she was one of four black students assigned to Rozelle Elementary School.
"That opportunity to learn what other students were learning was magnificent," she says. "I can only guess that my experiences were different because I was quiet. I kind of stayed to myself."
Deborah Northcross, namesake of the Memphis lawsuit, graduated from an integrated Central High School in 1969 and went to college at Mount Holyoke. She is grateful to Central for giving her a good education, newer textbooks than the ones used by her friends at all-black schools, and a heavier homework load. But she feels whites then and now often get the wrong message.
"Desegregation gave whites the impression we wanted to be with them," she says. "That was not the point. It was a matter of school choice and educational equity."
The 12 years that Fombi, Kyles, Northcross, and Freeman spent in the Memphis public schools from 1961 to 1973 spanned the major milestones of both desegregation and re-segregation. The grade-a-year plan held for five years as the pace of integration increased all across the country. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1966 the Memphis city schools faculty was integrated, and all 12 grades were integrated, often with only token numbers. By 1969, for example, East High School still had 1,866 white students and only 19 blacks. Nearby Lester Junior High and High School were all black.
Desegregation began in earnest in 1971, with the Supreme Court's decision approving busing as a means of desegregation. Student enrollment reached an all-time high of 148,015 in 1970-71, making the Memphis City Schools system the tenth largest in the country. By 1973, all deliberate speed had become full speed ahead, thanks to Desegregation Plans A and Z and Judge McRae.
In retirement, two decades later, McRae isolated himself in a carrel at the University of Memphis library and prepared a nine-part oral history for the Mississippi Valley Collection. He was surrounded by newspaper clippings, court documents, boxes full of old hate mail, and a score of yellow legal pads in which he wrote notes in longhand. His famous red judicial robe was replaced by casual clothes and an ever-present Greek fisherman's cap.
Did it work, a visitor asked?
"Yes it worked," he said. "People are going to debate that because they disagree on what the purpose was, but yes, it worked. The plan was to get rid of the biracial school system. It did. It wasn't part of the plan to run the whites off. They just left."
That they did. After Plan A ordered the busing of 13,789 students in 1973, approximately 8,000 white students left the system. A federal appeals court ruled that busing was "but a first step." Plan Z called for busing 39,904 students, although only 28,000 actually participated. Another 20,000 white students left the system. Within a year, Memphis had the largest private (and segregated) school system in the country.
Said McRae in 1995: "I tried to stop with Plan A but the appeals court wouldn't allow that. I was disappointed in the reaction to Plan Z. But I had to keep a stiff upper lip because this [reaction] was an act of defiance. Still I was disappointed that we hadn't come up with something that worked.
"No, I wouldn't do it any other way. I am convinced there was nobody who could have settled this the way the parties were opposed. Somewhere along the line I became convinced that it was morally right to desegregate the schools."
It is often overlooked that for a variety of reasons Plan Z was not popular with many blacks either. The NAACP wanted 60,000 not 40,000 students bused and sued to overrule Plan Z, which it called "a grotesque distortion of the law." A total of 26 inner-city schools were never integrated because, take your pick, there were not enough white students to go around or because the architects of desegregation believed white students would refuse to attend them. Black parents complained to civil rights lawyers that marijuana and LSD were far more common at white schools like East than at black schools. Others were worried to the point of tears at putting their children on buses.
"Judge McRae was as easy on the school system as he could possibly have been," says O.Z. Stephens, a former city schools official who helped devise the desegregation plan. "Plan A might have held the white population but we would not have had integration. It was something that had to be tried. We would not have had any rest in this city until it was tried. Plus, the Constitution said we had to."
So O.Z. Stephens wrote Plan Z.
The title was McRae's idea. After Plan A, he didn't want to deal with a succession of Plans B, C, and D etc. So he dubbed the first acceptable plan Plan Z in hopes that it would be the terminal plan. For the most part, it was.
"Inasmuch as my middle initial was Z, I got tagged with it," says Stephens. "My identification with Plan Z killed me professionally in the school system."
Still, he called McRae a profile in courage who could easily have ruled in favor of the school board, let the appellate court overrule him, and let them take the heat. Stephens' unsung hero of school desegregation is John P. Freeman, superintendent of Memphis schools in the busing years.
"He was a big, tough, salty South Memphis railroader and product of the school system. He had been a navigator on a B-17 bomber in World War II and could be unbelievably profane but he had a big heart. He was the one who went head to head with Mayor Wyeth Chandler over all the impediments. When the bus drivers threatened to walk out, he railed at them, 'you blankety-blanks will blankety-blank pick up those little kids.' And they did."
There was at least one partial success story which has survived. Optional schools are magnet schools or schools within schools for college-bound students or students with a special interest in theater or some other area. These are open to students from outside their attendance zone and include some of the few racially balanced schools in the city. Started in 1975, optional schools like Grahamwood Elementary and White Station High School had a distillation effect that concentrated a high percentage of high achievers while gutting other schools of their best and brightest, both black and white.
By the mid-Nineties, the effect was obvious on teachers like Karen Champion at Central High School, a 1967 graduate of Hamilton High School.
"Our games were packed when I was at Hamilton," she says. "Now unless the team is great it's difficult to get fans. When kids don't live in the neighborhood and can't walk to games, there is not as much loyalty to the school."
Memphis attorney Louis Lucas was one of the legal masterminds of school desegregation, working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Lucas believed systematic segregation did not go away after Jim Crow laws were struck down. It continued because of neighborhood patterns influenced by bankers and realtors and school attendance zones drawn for years by a whites-only board of education.
Several years after the great busing experiment, Lucas moved to Germantown. His daughters attended Shelby County schools that were overwhelmingly white. "My kids went to county schools because that is where we lived when we had children. We didn't move out there for the schools."
For whatever reasons, thousands of families moved to the suburbs after busing. In 2011, white flight and black flight from the inner city is very much an ongoing process. Memphis City Schools enrollment of 103,593 includes 92,157 blacks, 1,438 Asians, 7,067 Hispanics, and 7,655 whites. The number of whites would be even lower had the system not absorbed former county schools in annexation areas. Put another way, the chances are better than 90 percent that a black or Hispanic student attends a high school that is 99 percent or 100 percent minority and more than 90 percent economically disadvantaged. Only two city high schools, White Station and Cordova, come close to matching the city demographics as a whole.
The Shelby County school system has 47,342 students including 25,244 whites, 18,226 blacks, 2,340 Asians, and 2,233 Hispanics. As Memphis demolished its housing projects, subsidized housing was dispersed, with a heavy concentration in Hickory Hill, and other annexation areas. When pending Memphis annexations are completed, 12 schools operated now by Shelby County Schools are scheduled to become Memphis schools.
Nine of those 12 schools are majority-black. In all, these 12 schools have 7,656 black students, or more than 40 percent of the black students in the county system. One of them, Southwind High School, has 1,764 students but only 18 of them are white, a ratio quite similar in reverse to East High School in 1969.
The Southwind anomaly was noted by U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald in her 2007 review of the county schools' compliance with federal desegregation orders. She ordered the county system to redistrict to achieve better racial balance, but a federal appeals court overruled her in 2009.
In a line of reasoning that was ironically opposite the federal court's affirmation of busing in 1972, this appeals court said the school district has no duty to remedy imbalance caused by demographic factors, annexation, and "voluntary housing choices made by the public."
The idea of surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter and merging the school systems is not new. Maxine Smith recalls an effort in 1976 that failed by a narrow vote on the school board when she was a member. Smith is a supporter of the referendum. At a rally earlier this year, she predicted that it would pass. "They know we are right and they know we are going to win."
Julian Bolton, a Memphis attorney and former member of the Shelby County Commission, was involved in another merger effort in 1990.
The commission was redistricting to increase black representation. Suburban interests countered with a threat to secede and create a new county, Nashoba County. The underlying reason was fear of school system consolidation.
Bolton vividly recalls a meeting at Bartlett High School in a gymnasium packed with more than 3,000 people. He was the only county official to speak, and he did not mince words. "I said that county commissioners swore an oath to Shelby County and could be removed from office for violating their oath," Bolton said. "They were booing me, and a sheriff's deputy rushed me out of the auditorium."
Two years later, newly elected Memphis mayor Willie Herenton picked up the cause, suggesting in an interview with The New York Times that Memphis could surrender its charter and thereby consolidate with Shelby County. A task force concluded that would be difficult, at best, and nothing came of it.
"I did not want Memphis to become another Detroit," Herenton says now. "I saw that white flight left cities black and poor."
During his four and one-half terms as mayor, Herenton supported several attempts to revamp the school systems by committee, but although the intentions were always admirable, the results were negligible. The failure of those efforts convinced many of the current charter surrender activists that negotiations with county school board members and suburban mayors were futile.
O.Z. Stephens retired from Memphis City Schools in 1984 after 30 years. He lives in Bartlett. In a recent interview, he said he would vote against the merger if he lived in Memphis. He believes a 150,000-student system is too big. And he predicts another round of white flight if the merger passes.
"Then they will start tinkering," he said. "I can just hear some of the thoughts. 'We've been talking about closing 50 schools. We've got all these portable classrooms in Bartlett and Germantown. We don't need to build any more schools out there. Let's bring them here.' I guarantee some talk like that is going to emerge. The minute it does, bye-bye."
Virginia Burnette was the mother of four school-age daughters when busing began. She and her husband, a Methodist minister, decided it was their Christian duty to make the best of what was, she says "the most tumultuous time of my life."
Her youngest daughter went to Dunbar Elementary in south Memphis with about 40 other white children. Virginia went to class with her for a few weeks and was PTA president. It was a hard year, but she remembers humorous moments too. Someone asked if her daughter was "bright," meaning light-skinned. "I said, yes, she is very smart."
One day Virginia read the class a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, namesake of the school. Doing her best to speak in dialect and explain that "black" was not a literal color but more akin to chocolate, she asked, "What do you call me?"
A little boy piped up, "We call you a honky."
Ridgeway was the Burnettes' brand-new neighborhood school, but their oldest daughter was bused to Melrose. As she boarded the bus for the first day, she assured her mother everything would be fine. There was a bomb scare that afternoon.
"That was the biggest single witness we ever participated in because we gave our children to Memphis City Schools," said Burnette. "It was your Christian discipleship that was at stake. We thought we were doing the right thing and I think we were. Our children did not suffer."
All of Burnette's daughters went to college and had professional careers. Now living in Cordova, Burnette said she would vote for the referendum.
At 79 years old, Joe Clayton is the white-haired eminence of the Shelby County Schools Board of Education. When he retires next year, his career will have spanned three generations and three school systems — Memphis, Shelby County, and Briarcrest Christian Schools, where he was principal of the high school from 1974 to 1996. Like Virginia Burnette, he says 1974 was a test of his Christian faith.
"In the spring of 1974 I was principal at Overton High School when we graduated 600 students, the largest senior class in the history of Memphis City Schools. Briarcrest had opened an elementary school in 1973 and wanted to start a high school. When I was contacted by the board, I did a lot of praying because I had been in public education for so long, but God had other plans for my life. My life plan was to spend the next 22 years of my life bringing Briarcrest into existence.
"It blows my mind even today. We opened with 963 students, and 103 of those were seniors, which meant they had left another school. By the second year we were accredited. That school was a miracle school. It just took off and never looked back."
The school's first location was on Sweetbriar in East Memphis. It has moved further east as its enrollment has grown. The movie The Blind Side is based on the life of Briarcrest student Michael Oher and the Tuohy family.
Clayton sees similarities between then and now. "When I went to Overton in 1974 busing had just started. It was a fear thing. You were busing kids out of Overton to Hamilton. Parents were not going to let that happen. I don't see the fear factor in this now. I think people are concerned about taking a large system of 100,000 students and 105 failing schools and merging with a school system of 48,000 students and five failing schools. The big concern is who is going to be in charge and why are we doing this. Why are we taking a good school system and merging it with one that on paper looks like it is having troubles?"
Clayton ended the interview with the Bible passage "all things are possible with God" from the Book of Matthew. "To put this thing together by man is going to be impossible, but if this is God's plan we can make it work."