Suggest desegregation as a strategy for making K-12 education more equitable and you’re sure to encounter this response: “Busing? We tried that and it didn’t work.”
As Arizona State University historian Matt Delmont explains in his recent book “Why Busing Failed,” the truth is a good deal more complicated. But white anti-busing activists managed to hijack the media narrative about desegregation and make it about their demands for neighborhood schools.
In the process, African-American students, parents and communities were rendered largely invisible.
“Framing school desegregation as being about ‘busing’ rather than unconstitutional racial discrimination privileged white parents’ fears over legal evidence,” Delmont writes. “Ultimately, ‘busing’ failed to more fully desegregate public schools because school officials, politicians, courts and the news media valued the desires of white parents more than the rights of black students.”
The book’s subtitle is “Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Segregation.” And a lot of Delmont’s research delves into how the news media, especially television, shaped the debate over desegregation around the visual and emotional story of white parents’ opposition.
Anti-busing activists like Louise Day Hicks in Boston, Rosemary Gunning in New York and Irene McCabe in Pontiac, Mich., learned well the lessons of the civil rights movements. They used marches, boycotts and the rhetoric of rights and freedom to dominate news coverage of the issue.