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Why Are Schools Still Segregated? The Broken Promise of Brown v. Board of Education

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling opened the floodgates for busing across the country, but what happened when the buses stopped rolling?

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, mandatory busing to create racial balance in public schools was a hot debate, particularly across the South. At the center of the discussion was Charlotte, N.C., where a long fight over busing landed before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in 1971 that federal courts could impose a host of remedies, including busing, to accomplish school integration in Charlotte. That decision opened the door to mandatory busing in districts across the country.

Busing seemed a logical way to implement the long overdue promise of school desegregation envisioned by the Supreme Court in its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education more than 15 years earlier. But implementation turned out to be unexpectedly complicated.

Some people feared integration; others worried what might happen to children who were bused far from home. Many Black families wanted to prioritize gaining access to long-denied educational resources — money, teachers, books and facilities — rather than seats next to white students in schools far across town.

The issue roiled Charlotte. There were bomb threats and vandalism at schools on opening day. Some parents, most of them white, kept their children at home. But over time, mandatory busing began to succeed. Students worked things out in classrooms and on playing fields. Charlotte became an emblem of the possibilities of integration.

That is not where the story of busing ended, however. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s led to hundreds of desegregation orders and plans being dismantled across the country. As this updated Retro Report shows, the struggle for equality in education is far from over.

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Collection: U.S. Supreme Court


Busing for School Desegregation

Was busing actually successful? The case of Charlotte, North Carolina demonstrates that it succeeded in desegregating schools. Decades later, white parents brought a lawsuit to end busing, resulting in the city's schools becoming de facto segregated once again.