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How Court's Bus Ruling Sealed Differences In Detroit Schools

By Sarah Alvarez | MR
Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It was 40 years ago today that the Supreme Court accepted what became a landmark case about school desegregation. The case was controversial because it involved busing student between a largely African-American city — Detroit — and its white suburban areas. The ruling helped cement differences between urban schools and suburban neighborhoods.

White flight out of the city was already in full swing in the early 1970s, and Detroit neighborhoods were racially segregated. Race relations were tense; Stevie Wonder had released a Motown record with the line, "You can't tell me nothing white man." That same year, Ku Klux Klan members blew up 10 school buses in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac rather than let them be used to bus black and white students to integrate the schools.

There was considerable urgency to desegregate Detroit's schools, and the school board redrew boundary lines so that schools would be racially and economically integrated. But the state Legislature stepped in and killed the plan. Detroit parent Ray Litt thought diversity was one of the best things about his old Detroit school, and he wanted that for his kids. So Litt and a group of Detroiters went to court in an attempt to force the state to desegregate Detroit's schools.

"The original lawsuit was filed by NAACP, and my three kids, Daniel, Deborah and Sandy, were listed as plaintiffs," Litt recalled.

That lawsuit became Milliken v. Bradley, and it went to the Supreme Court after a federal judge agreed that Detroit's schools needed to be desegregated. He ordered kids from Detroit to be bused into the suburbs and vice versa, since Detroit didn't have enough white students to make desegregation work.

Some were opposed to busing, with many citing the upheaval it would cause for their children. The Supreme Court ended up striking down the lawsuit and Detroit's busing plan 5-4, saying that since the suburbs did not cause Detroit's problems, they did not have to be part of the solution.

Frank Kelley was then Michigan's attorney general and argued against busing before the Supreme Court. He thinks the court made the right call.

"This case was 80 percent political, and the other factor, one thing that you want to remember, that the discrimination the judge found in Detroit had nothing to do with anything in modern times," Kelley said.

Now, 40 years after Litt brought this desegregation case to the Supreme Court, the school where his son went — Vandenberg Elementary — has been turned into a charter school. And, like almost every school in Detroit, nearly all the students are African-American.

"Every time I hear about education and the need that we have to do things to make sure the young people get developed in a way that makes them able to be successful, happy, knowledgeable, the one word that gets left out is desegregation," Litt said.

Joyce Baugh teaches civil rights at Central Michigan University and has written extensively about Milliken v. Bradley.

"The Detroit public school system is in dire straits, in large part because of that decision. I don't think enough people realize the impact of that case. Not just in Detroit, but across the country," Baugh said.

Baugh thinks the Milliken decision motivated people to move away from urban schools to, in effect, outrun desegregation. And ever since Milliken, the Supreme Court has not been an especially friendly place for school desegregation efforts, even those without forced busing. In the past few years, Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Seattle all have had desegregation plans struck down by the Supreme Court.

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