Busing set off Democratic debate flare-up, but does it still matter in Detroit?

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A viral debate exchange between two Democratic presidential candidates in Miami is likely to follow them later this month to the debates in Detroit, where the issue of busing and school integration nearly five decades ago has complicated roots.

The busing debate in Pontiac and Detroit in the early 1970s involved well-known political figures, bus explosions by the Ku Klux Klan and fractured views on how urban schools should be desegregated. 

But activists and historians have differing perspectives on whether busing has any relevance in present-day Metro Detroit, despite the coverage it received nationally when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to a federal busing mandate.

In her fiery critique during last month’s debate, Harris noted she was part of the second class of Berkeley, California, students to be voluntarily bused to a majority-white elementary school.

“That little girl was me,” said Harris in a monologue that went viral. "I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley California public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education," she added.

Biden responded: "I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education; that's what I opposed."

The "gotcha moment" was a strategic move that helped Harris move up in the polls, but the issue likely won't carry much political weight with voters in Detroit or elsewhere, said Mario Morrow, a Democratic political consultant. 

Busing of public school students in Detroit on the first day, Jan. 26, 1976.

"The question is, do you think the 18-34-year-olds even know what the hell they’re talking about when they bring up busing?" said Morrow, an African American. "They don’t. It’s a non-issue.”

While busing mandates might be history, the lack of financially stable predominantly black schools remains problematic in Detroit and other Michigan cities nearly a half-century later, said Central Michigan University political science professor Joyce Baugh.

Detroit and other urban schools might have avoided their present-day deterioration if busing was fully implemented and the presence of white students in those schools gave lawmakers reason to fully fund urban education, Baugh said.

“In all honesty, I was stunned that that issue came up in that debate, because it’s just not talked about anymore,” said Baugh, the author of “The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation.”

“Nobody wants to deal with it because I think it requires a level of honesty and reflection that many people aren’t quite ready to give,” she said.

How busing developed in Michigan

In Michigan, efforts at forced desegregation spurred protests, launched political careers and set legal precedent on the issue for the rest of the United States.

In 1970, federal Judge Damon Keith ordered desegregation of Pontiac schools, including busing students between majority-white and majority-black schools in the district. The order was opposed by Pontiac resident Irene McCabe and attorney L. Brooks Patterson, who represented the National Action Group.

Patterson, who now serves as Oakland County's executive, argued it was an "experiment in social engineering."

Earlier this year, Patterson said his legal fight occasionally brought him in conflict with the Pontiac superintendent tasked with implementing the busing order: Dana Whitmer, grandfather of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Group of young people carry picket signs in front of the Federal Building in Detroit, Michigan to protest busing on May 6, 1975.

Before Pontiac’s desegregation began in August 1971, the Ku Klux Klan blew up 10 buses belonging to the Pontiac school system. 

“…From that time on, busing was a national issue, not just a Southern one,” the New York Times wrote in a 1975 article, which noted about 11,000 of the district’s 20,000 students were being bused for integration that year.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a separate, more ambitious busing case in Detroit would eventually support Patterson's argument. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that leaders could not require cross-district desegregation through busing without a finding that suburban districts' policies encouraged segregation. 

"Busing didn't work. It was never a good educational concept to begin with," Patterson told The Detroit News in 1992. He wasn't available for comment for this story.

The Detroit case, Milliken v. Bradley, also originated around 1970, when the Detroit school board developed a plan to integrate some schools through busing.

The initial effort led to the recall of four board members and a rejection of the plan by Republican then-Gov. William Milliken and the Legislature.

Then-Sen. Coleman Young, a Democrat who later became Detroit's first black mayor, worked with lawmakers at the time on a law that repealed the school board's plan for integration, created a community school plan that decentralized control of the school system and contained a provision allowing white students to transfer out of newly established black neighborhood schools, Baugh said.

The school board’s general counsel approached the legal arm of the NAACP in New York, which promptly sued Milliken for citywide school segregation on behalf of Detroit students and parents, Baugh said. The initial NAACP suit sought to repeal the new law and restore the board's initial integration plan. 

Neither the school board nor the NAACP had consulted with the Detroit branch of the NAACP, said Bruce Miller, who chaired the Detroit NAACP’s legal redress committee in the early 1970s.

A woman shouts during an anti-busing demonstration in Pontiac, Michigan on September 1, 1971.

“We were not hot for the lawsuit, but when the decision was made in New York, we went along with it,” Miller said.

The NAACP made two arguments in Detroit, Baugh said. One was the school board had gerrymandered school district lines and implemented pro-segregation policies. The other was that state and federal housing policies essentially segregated whites from blacks and school district borders followed the segregated housing boundaries.

After a 41-day trial, U.S. District Judge Stephen Roth selected a "multidistrict" desegregation plan that would require busing students among 54 of the 86 districts in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties, Baugh said.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the arguments about state and federal school policies and rejected the desegregation plan, effectively ending mandated cross-district busing efforts. The court allowed a Detroit-only desegregation plan as meeting the historic Brown v. Board of Education precedent.

"To approve the remedy ordered by the court would impose on the outlying districts, not shown to have committed any constitutional violation, a wholly impermissible remedy based on a standard not hinted at in Brown I and II or any holding of this Court," wrote Chief Justice Warren Burger for the majority.

The High Court also noted a multi-district remedy would impose significant challenges.

"The metropolitan remedy would require, in effect, consolidation of 54 independent school districts historically administered as separate units into a vast new super school district," Burger wrote. "Entirely apart from the logistical and other serious problems attending large-scale transportation of students, the consolidation would give rise to an array of other problems in financing and operating this new school system."

Pontiac resident Irene McCabe, far right, leader of a local homeowners group called the National Action Group (NAG), led an anti-bussing walk to Washington D.C. on  March 15, 1972.

Busing created divisions between races and political parties in Michigan that continue to be felt today, Miller said. 

“It is my opinion that it has accomplished nothing other than polarizing the city racially and created what’s considered colloquially as the Reagan Democrats in Macomb County,” said Miller, who heads the labor law firm Miller Cohen in Detroit. “It was a well-intentioned idea that was a disaster."

But Baugh contended that if the Supreme Court would have considered the housing argument, the busing order would have stood and Detroit schools would have been better off.

“I just have a real difficult time believing that the schools would have deteriorated the way that they did if white and black kids were going to school together,” she said.

The Harris effect

The problems that were at the root of the busing debate continue to exist, if only to a lesser extent, Baugh said, and that's why Harris wasn't out of place to question Biden’s past stances.

“When the local decision makers refuse to act, nothing’s going to happen unless the federal government steps in,” she said.

In the 1970s, Biden backed legislation aimed at restricting federal courts and agencies from requiring busing to racially integrate public schools, according to the New York Times. His campaign told Politico he now supports a congressional Democratic initiative to repeal 1970s-era restrictions on voluntary busing.

Police officers tussle with two women during an anti-busing demonstration in Pontiac, Michigan on September 1, 1971.

Berkeley's secondary schools already were racially integrating in 1969 when Harris started attending an elementary school where 37% of the students were black the year before, according to a Sacramento Bee fact check that noted her integration history "is more complicated than she made it out to be." 

On the campaign trail, Harris later softened her tone to indicate busing was "in the toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools" — a step away from mandatory busing. 

Last school year, African American students accounted for 82% of the roughly 50,000 students in the Detroit school system, according to state data. In neighboring Grosse Pointe Public Schools, white students made up nearly 74% of the roughly 7,800-student district.

In 1994 as part of a school financing overhaul, Michigan created alternative public schools known as charters and expanded schools of choice, which allow students to select schools among districts that voluntarily participate — whether inside a district or across district lines.

Schools of choice gave students more options, but it didn't fully address foundational issues such as poverty, safety and family and community wellness, said Dan Quisenberry, president for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

That's where newer approaches seeking equity in student opportunity come in, such as the governor's proposed education budget that would use weighted per-pupil funding based on factors such as poverty, English language students and special education needs, Quisenberry said.

"Let’s fund the ability of schools to address the needs of kids in poverty to begin to even out the playing field," he said. 

Michigan's education challenges are now deeper than the busing issue and involve questions of adequate, stable funding and the debate between public and nonpublic schools, said Morrow, a former superintendent in Albion. 

"Detroiters want to hear about urban revitalization," he said. "They want to hear about jobs. They want to hear about ... how we’re going to transform this community into a vibrant society.”

A black man and a white man argue during an anti-busing demonstration in Pontiac, Michigan on September 1, 1971.

Although Miller is a local counsel in a federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan for failing to guarantee Detroit students’ right to literacy, he called Harris’ debate move a phony ploy.

“Obviously, I don’t think black students are getting the education they need,” Miller said. “The answer to that is to improve the damn schools. … I’m committed to dealing with the problem, but the solution to the problem isn’t busing.”

Harris benefited from a voluntary busing program in Berkeley, not a court-imposed one, he noted. 

“It's ancient history,” Miller said. “Most of the people who were around then are dead. It’s nothing that has infringed on people’s consciousness for decades.”


(517) 371-3661