A story of America’s school integration and what happened when the buses stopped rolling.

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The Battle For Busing

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, busing became a dirty word to parents of many school age children around the country, especially in the South. And no place attracted more attention than Charlotte, North Carolina, whose long fight over mandatory busing landed it in a closely-watched test case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark 1971 ruling mandated that federal courts could impose a host of remedies, including busing, to force school integration in Charlotte, and opened the floodgates for busing students in hundreds of school districts across the country over the next decade.

On the face of it, busing seemed a logical solution to implementing the long overdue school desegregation promised by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education more than 15 years earlier. But implementation turned out to be anything but easy.

Some whites feared racial integration; others wondered what might happen to their kids when they were bused far from home. But blacks also were uncomfortable with the prospect. For many, their fight had always been more about long-denied education resources — money, teachers, books and facilities — than a desire to sit next to white children in schools way across town.

All of these fears played out in Charlotte as the nation watched. The nightly news and the newspapers led with stories of “race riots” where white and non-white students, mostly blacks back then, had suddenly been thrust together. There were bomb threats and vandalism at schools on opening day. The parents of many kids, mostly white students, chose to keep their children home.

Then something curious happened. Over time, by fits and starts, mandatory busing began to succeed in Charlotte. Young whites and young blacks worked things out, both in the classroom and out on the playing fields. Charlotte became a national darling in the drive to integrate, and a symbol of what was possible when people gave forced busing a chance.

But that’s not where the story of busing ends. Retro Report took a look back at Charlotte’s busing struggle, along with the nation’s struggle at large, digging through research and interviewing some of those whose lives were shaped by this historic effort to make good on the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. What we found is both reassuring and disturbing at turns, and proof that the struggle for school equality is far from over.

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More on the Story

School Integration’s ComebackThe Atlantic
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Desegregation and the Public SchoolsThe New York Times
Schools resegregate after end of mandatory busing programsEdSource
B. Drummond Ayres, Jr.: “The Battle for Busing”Chris Riback's Conversations with Thinkers