Forced Busing: Was it worth it?

Forced Busing: Was it worth it?
Published: Feb. 10, 2016 at 9:57 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 26, 2016 at 10:22 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - As Jefferson County Public Schools remembers the 40th anniversary of the start of busing, UofL history professor Tracy K'Meyer points out the majority of U.S. school districts are shifting toward "mass re-segregation" as courts ease orders to desegregate.

"JCPS is one of only a few school districts in the country that hasn't given up on desegregation," K'Meyer said.

Lynn Elliott is a member of a group that has dubbed itself "Pioneers of Forced Busing." The group meets monthly to discuss the history of its education, often planning public events to handle the issues that still surround the 1976 decision to merge and desegregate Louisville's city and county schools.

"I look at the young people today and you always have to stand on somebody else's shoulders, and ours were the shoulders they stood on today to get to where they are," Elliot said.

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Pamela Smith's situation was very different from Elliot's because she started at Shawnee High School and moved to a county school in Shively when her family bought a new home. Hers was the first black family in the neighborhood. Smith then switched to Butler high School. She compares the school she went to in 1975 to the school her children attended just a couple of years ago.

"They ended up going to schools that look like a little United Nations," Smith joked.

The court order to merge and desegregate Louisville's city and county schools did just that. The questions now are, "Was it worth it?" and "Is it still worth it today?"

The present profile of the Jefferson County Public School system boast of students speaking 107 different languages. JCPS is the 28th largest school district in the country.

"Yes, it was traumatic," K'Meyer said. "Yes, we were harmed. But it made the community a better place to be. It helped people get over their prejudice."

Cate Fosl, a UofL professor and author, is also the Director of the Anne Braden Institute of Justice Research. Fosl grew up during the turbulent years of school desegregation in rural Coweta County, Ga., and became an activist in the 1980s women's and peace movements, where she first heard of Anne
Braden, who was an advocate for racial equality. Born in Louisville, and raised in rigidly segregated Anniston, Ala., Braden grew up in a white,
middle-class family that accepted southern racial mores wholeheartedly. Fosl has written many books about Braden's life and now runs the center that bears Braden's name.

"It's a very mixed story," Fosl said. "I think that we learned that no solution is simple. We've got a lot of work to do to really to live together but it can't be only the schools."

Former Jefferson County attorney J. Bruce Miller has worked to appeal the forced busing decree.

"Other things should have been done and could be done now," he said. "Certainly the situation needed to improve."

Miller said he believes if the city had not rioted, he and his team would have had a chance to launch a successful appeal of the forced busing decree.

"It was awful," he said. "A policeman had his eye put out. It was bad ... There's no way the Supreme Court was going to react in a way to reverse something and allow the public to think the way you get it reversed is by rioting."

Tracy K'Meyer shared verbal history narratives, newspaper accounts and other documents in her book "From Brown to Meredith: The Long Struggle for School Desegregation in Louisville, Kentucky 1954-2007." K'Meyer exposed the disappointments of desegregation, drew attention to those who struggled for more than five decades to bring about equality and diversity and highlighted the many benefits of school integration.

"I don't think it's the transportation that really bothers people," K'Meyer said. "I think it's that they want to know the school that your child is going to is a strong academic program with strong extracurricular activity. If you want people to accept racial desegregation there has to be economic desegregation as well.  There has to be equal resources, equal funding, and equal assignment of teachers."

The district currently puts schools in clusters, which are groups of diverse neighborhoods. Parents fill out applications listing their preferences for certain schools in their cluster. There is no guarantee a student will get his top pick. There are also magnet schools and special programs to choose from. The plan has now swapped racial quotas for a diversity plan based on diversity as well as socioeconomic status.

"The recalibrated plan has managed to maintain a quite a bit of racial diversity in our schools," Fosl said.

The decree for forced busing was dissolved in 2000. Many have asked the question, "Why not go back to neighborhood schools?"

"Residentially, we're still a fairly segregated community," K'Meyer said. "You'd have increased racial segregation and drastically increased economic segregation.  You'd go back to having poor schools and rich schools."

Miller said he believes basing today's system off old problems is just not fair.

"It's almost as unfair as what's happening to UofL basketball," he said. "The school system -- let's call it a system -- dictates primarily what happens and how it happens. That decision ought to be the parents or the guardians."

Smith said she believes she has been part of a system that was unfair from the start.

Returning to neighborhood schools "would be worth fighting for all over again," Smith said.

"The literature is very clear," K'Meyer added. "Desegregated schools produce better educational outcomes for lower-income people, minority people and non-minority people."

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