The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954-1955 rulings on Brown v. Board of Education forbade perpetuation of "separate but equal" dual public educational systems and required their subsequent desegregation. Many states tried to circumvent Brown by passing placement laws that superficially desegregated schools while allowing local boards to maintain segregated systems. In North Carolina, the General Assembly passed the Pupil Placement Act (1955). In Charlotte, token integration occurred in 1957, when a few black students were assigned to three white schools. In 1962, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education adopted a plan of nonracial geographic assignment. The plan granted students freedom of transfer from an area of black concentration and closed some all-black schools. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Board faced a loss of federal funding unless the 1962 plan was revised to comply with federal anti-discrimination policy. As the Board began drawing up new plans, the class action suit, James E. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, was brought against the Board in January 1965, charging that the Board maintained a segregated system.
The suit originated when Darius Swann, professor of theology at Johnson C. Smith University, requested that his son James be allowed to attend the predominantly white school near their home instead of the predominantly black school some distance away. When the Board denied his request, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund took his case and several similar ones to the courts as a class action suit through the services of Charlotte civil rights attorney Julius Chambers. The suit was brought before the U.S. District Court, where Judge J. Braxton Craven Jr. approved the Board's new plans for the 1965-1966 school year. The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where Judge Clement Haynsworth upheld the District Court's ruling. The plaintiffs reopened the case in September 1968, filing for further desegregation of the schools. Appointed to hear the case in the District Court was James B. McMillan Jr. Attorneys for the defendants were Brock Barkley, William J. Waggoner (see William J. Waggoner Papers), and Benjamin S. Horack (see Benjamin S. Horack Papers).
In April 1969, McMillan ruled that there still existed a dual system in which schools were racially identifiable; that discriminatory property laws, the "freedom of choice" clause, gerrymandering of district lines, and the "neighborhood school" theory were perpetrating segregated schools; and that achievement scores of blacks in black schools were unacceptably low. In June 1969, the Board submitted a plan that closed some black inner city schools and reassigned these pupils, along with other black students, to white schools. In August 1969, the court approved the implementation of this plan for the 1969-1970 year but ordered the Board to prepare by November a plan for desegregation according to balanced racial ratios. The Board's plan, submitted November 17, 1969, was not accepted by the Court because it continued to focus on freedom of choice and rezoning. In December, McMillan laid out specific guidelines for the preparation of plans that would desegregate the schools. Dr. John A. Finger, an educational consultant from Rhode Island College, was hired and instructed to prepare a plan that would reach, to the extent possible and using all available means, a 71:29 ratio of whites to blacks in all schools. The Board also prepared desegregation plans. Both Finger and the Board prepared separate plans for each level: high school, junior high, and elementary. Both sets of plans were submitted to the Court in February 1970. Finger's plan relied substantially on busing. McMillan subsequently rejected the Board's plans and ordered the implementation of Finger's plans.
Concurrently, as the central issue was in the courts, supplementary suits were also developing. In June 1969, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an anti-busing statute. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education was ordered in February 1970 to begin busing, the North Carolina Board of Education and several individuals, among them Mrs. Robert E. Moore and Tom B. Harris, sued the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and William Self, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The cases, decided in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, enforced a temporary restraining order based on the use of public funds for busing in the desegregation plan and ruled such uses conflict with the anti-busing statute. The Swann plaintiffs moved to add these individuals and the state as additional parties defendant to prevent them from interfering with federal court mandates. In March 1970, McMillan ordered that a three-judge court convene to rule on the anti-busing statute. The three-judge court, presided over by circuit court judges J. Braxton Craven and John Butzner, and district judge McMillan, ruled the anti-busing statute unconstitutional. The North Carolina State Board of Education and the additional parties appealed the case to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the central Swann case was on appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was heard en banc by Judges John D. Butzner, Clement E. Haynsworth, Simon E. Sobeloff, Harrison L. Winter, Albert V. Bryan, and Herbert S. Boreman. Judge Craven disqualified himself because he had ruled on the case when it was in the District Court in 1965.
On May 26, 1970, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, approving most of the Finger plan dealing with the junior and senior high schools, rejected a part applying to elementary schools that provided for additional busing of several thousand elementary school children to achieve a racial balance in schools that would otherwise be predominantly black or white. (See memorandum, Legal Defense Fund staff to "Our Contributors," October 7, 1970, Series 2.) The basis for the judges' ruling was the opinion that every school does not need to be integrated under a unitary system, particularly when such integration would require extreme cross busing, and that the primary consideration to be applied in deciding local cases is the "test of reasonableness." The elementary plan was remanded back to the District Court for redrafting, and McMillan ordered that the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) assist in the preparation of new elementary school plans.
When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue was whether school boards were required to use all available means to achieve integration. The Board of Education also filed a motion to stay the implementation of the Finger and HEW plans for the 1970-1971 school year. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in October 1970, but refused to stay the district court's order. Instead, on June 29, 1970, following hearings to modify the elementary plan, the Supreme Court mandated that the orders of the district court be reinstated for the 1970-1971 school year for all grade levels. As such, mass busing of students began that year. In April 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the Finger Plan was a constitutional method for desegregating high school, junior high, and elementary level grades, thus upholding the District Court's original ruling of February 1970. The implications of the decision were that all available means must be used to desegregate the schools and that busing, as a means to achieve racial desegregation, is constitutional. Following the Supreme Court's decision, the district court was charged with ensuring that integration would continue to be implemented in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. The U.S. District Court, Western District of North Carolina oversaw this process until 1975, when the case was officially closed.
[For further information, consult: Davison M. Douglas, Reading, Writing & Race: the Desegregation of the Charlotte Schools (1995); Frye Gaillard, The Dream Long Deferred (1988); Lino A. Graglia, Disaster by Decree: The Supreme Court Decisions on Race and the Schools (1976); George R. Metcalf, From Little Rock to Boston: The History of School Desegregation (1983); and Bernard Schwartz, Swann's Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court (1986).]