When busing for desegregation came to Lansing
Fifty years ago, just like today, Michigan voters were faced with perplexing decisions in the upcoming election. In addition to Richard Nixon facing off against Sen. George McGovern for president, and Robert Griffin and state Attorney General Frank Kelley in a rumble for the U.S. Senate, voters had to decide whether to legalize abortion, alter daylight savings time and pay Vietnam veterans bonuses. Locally, Lansing voters were also confronting a required busing plan that would move schoolchildren between schools to achieve desegregation.
In 1971, school board records showed that two-thirds of black children in Lansing were attending predominantly black schools.
After U.S. District Judge Noel Fox ruled on Oct. 27, 1972, against a last-ditch effort by proponents of busing and the NAACP to block the recall vote, Lansing voters easily ousted five Lansing school board members who favored school busing. When the final counts were in, Lansing voters helped elect Nixon and Griffin, who ran on anti-busing platforms, and also helped defeat constitutional amendments to legalize abortions, provide bonuses for veterans and reform the state income tax law.
Despite Fox’s ruling and the appointment of new board members by Michigan’s governor, William G. Milliken, the contentious issue of busing would dominate local politics for nearly a decade and ultimately would be decided by the state and federal courts. From then on, Fox would oversee implementation of busing in Lansing using the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision Swann vs. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education as precedent. Today, 50 years later, the names of the courageous school board members who were recalled are mostly unknown except for Hortense Canady, who was the first African American elected to the board, and Clarence H. Rosa, whose name graces the Capital Area District Library’s downtown location.
Riding the bus
When 6-year-old first grader Heather Stump jumped on the bright yellow school bus for the first time in September 1977, she couldn’t have understood why she was being bused from her Lansing Westside neighborhood to Gunnisonville School located on Wood Street on the city’s far northside. This would be the first time that grade one through six would be bused. Approximately 2,500 elementary students out of 16,500 elementary students were bused to 20 elementary schools.
Heather’s mom, Penny Stump, had fully expected her daughter to walk to nearby Genessee School from their home on Carey Street. Regardless, Stump was right there, holding an umbrella, as her daughter jumped on the bus in a tableau, which was recorded by a photographer for a front-page article in the Lansing State Journal.
Heather was just one of the tens of thousands of Lansing schoolchildren who between 1972 and well into the ‘80s became part of a national effort to desegregate schools. Although numbers are not readily available, it’s thought about one-quarter to one-third of Lansing School District students in total were bused. The school district could not verify the actual numbers of children bused, minority representation, or bus routes, which seemed to change annually.
Penny Stump said at first her daughter didn’t adapt well to her new school, but her first-grade teacher, Maxine Hankins Cain, helped turn that around. Cain would spend most of her career as a teacher and administrator, rising to the head of elementary education for the Lansing School District. After retiring from the school district, she became the superintendent of Sankofa Shule Public School Academy in Lansing.
“Maxine was absolutely wonderful — one teacher made all the difference,” Stump said.
Opinions on the efficacy of busing run the gamut, but one black parent, Gladys Wheeler, who had three children bused across town despite living across the street from Main Street School, said, “I can’t see how it helped kids by moving them out the neighborhood,” she said.
“The kids came home for lunch and I could go and sit in on their classes. If they forgot something I could run across the street. If a teacher had a problem I could easily stop in. All that ended.” she said.
Despite her concerns, her children didn’t seem to have any problem with busing, she said.
Today, however, the implementation of busing, according to Stump, was “clumsy” from what she calls “little consideration of how it was going to unfold.” Despite that, she believes busing was necessary and beneficial to the community.
Carl Johnson, another child who was bused, agreed with Stump’s assessment that the execution being clumsy.
Johnson, who is African Amercan and who lived on the corner of Middle and William streets between I-496 and the Grand River on the near west side, was entering his junior year and had already been practicing with the Sexton football team when he got word he was being bused.
“At the last minute I was told to turn in my equipment and I was going to Everett,” he said.
“It was devastating. Initially, the people I knew were the people I was bused with,” Johnson said. From his recollection, Everett was nearly an all-white school boasting 1,500 students, of which only 150 were black even after busing. In elementary school, Johnson had been bused from the nearly all-black Main Street School, near I-496 and what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to almost all-white Pattengill Junior High School, on the east side.
“Eventually, I seemed to adjust well and played football and ran track at Everett. It served me well being around people with different backgrounds and races,” he said. Johnson graduated from Everett with honors and received several college scholarship offers.
Johnson wasn’t the only one who wanted to be a “Big Red” at Sexton. When Carl Strickland, who is African American, who lived on William near the old Oldsmobile manufacturing plant, was disappointed then he was told he’d be bused to Everett.
“At first it was kind of a let-down. All my life I wanted to be a Big Red, but when I got to Everett, the people were good,” he said. Because of his athletic prowess, Strickland became a star football player and even scored five touchdowns against his former love, Sexton. He was well liked and he was named King of the Court his sophomore and junior years.
At one point, Strickland recalled, students who were bused to Everett were given the option to return to Sexton.
“We had a full bus of 66 students, but I was among 13 students who decided to stay at Everett. We were still bused, but instead of a shiny new bus we ended up in a dusty old little bus,” Strickland said.
Children who were bused in the 1970s and early ‘80s, who are now in their 50s and 60s, considered busing no big deal. For parents it was a different story.
Timothy Bowman, who is white and attended kindergarten at southside Mt. Hope School in walking distance of his home, was bused in the first grade to Allen Street School on the east side.
“I didn’t know anything about busing and I thought it was fun,” he said. He attended Allen from 1976 to 1979, then spent fourth grade at Maplewood School, on Cedar Street nearer his home.
Derrick Quinney, a Black former Lansing Lansing City Council member, had a similar experience when he was bused across town as a 10-year-old to Forest View School just off of Aurelius Road in 1974. After attending Sexton High School as a freshman, he was bused once again to the newer Harry Hill High School on Lansing’s far south side despite living only a few blocks from Sexton. Hill only operated as a high school from 1972 to 1982.
“At Forest View School, we had a teacher who called the bused kids who were mostly black ‘boobs,’” he said.
“Looking back at being bused now, it was a new experience and fun,” he said.
Quinney, who is register of deeds for Ingham County, said the open housing law, which ended restrictive covenants, ultimately led to a lesser need for busing to achieve racial integration.
Mary Kathleen VanAcker, who is white, was living near Post Oak Elementary School in the eastside Groesbeck neighborhood, where she had attended the school for kindergarten through second grade, when her family was informed by mail that she would be bused to Cedar Street School for third grade.
“I remember my mom and dad arguing about it. My mom wanted to send me to Resurrection, but my dad wanted to keep me in public school,” she said.
VanAcker had quite the journey, attending third and fourth grade at Cedar Street, then returning to Post Oak School for fifth grade, and then on the bus again in sixth grade to attend Grand River School on the north side.
“I remember getting off the bus on the first day and there was a group of black parents picketing. They were as upset as our parents that outsiders were being brought into the school.”
Overall, VanAcker said, “Busing was good for me. It opened me up to a lot of different kids,” she said.
“By the time I got to Eastern High School, I knew lots of kids.”
VanAcker’s experience attending numerous schools was not atypical as nearly each year the school board would draw new geographic lines for busing. Sometimes this was due to minority representation rates, court decrees, or school closings, which became frequent in the ‘80s along with the massive relocation of more than 600 African American families mostly to the south side due to the construction of I-496 Expressway, which opened in 1970. Beginning in the 1960s, Lansing’s population stagnated as families fled to the suburbs, accelerated by busing and the passage of the 1968 Open Housing Act. “White flight” happened in cities across the U.S.
According to Lansing Community College history Professor David Siwik, busing may have brought out the worst in people. “Previously popular thought was racism was a Southern thing, but when busing was being implemented in the North “racism was brought home,” he said.
Political activist Jesse Jackson may have said it best when he was quoted, “It’s not busing, it’s us.” A report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was less subtle: For shock value, the n-word was added after “us.”
Matthew F. Delmont, a Dartmouth College professor writing in his 2016 book “Why Busing Failed: Race, Media and the National Resistance to School Desegregation,” said it because school officials, politicians, the courts and the media gave precedence to white parents who opposed school desegregation.
He also wrote: “The majority of white Americans never supported civil rights if it meant confronting or overturning the structures of racial discrimination that created and maintained segregated schools and neighborhoods. The battle over ‘busing’ exposed this truth.”
In essence, busing was a convenient political boogeyman that provided cover for parents who didn’t want their kids to go to school with black children.
“Historically,” Siwik said, the neighborhood school had been the staple of how neighborhoods were organized so maintaining neighborhood schools became the battle cry.”
“The rubber met the road relating to racism when busing began to mix races in schools,” Siwick said.
He also pointed to the fact people did not like such a major policy being imposed on them similar to the recent masking debate across the country.
Lansing’s population, which had begun stagnating in the ‘60s, began to lose significant numbers to the suburbs. School enrollments that reflected that flight also began to drop precipitously. In the 1968 school year, the Lansing School District had a student population of 33,398, compared to 10,000 today. In 1969 and 1970, school enrollment dropped 500 a year; in 1972 enrollment dropped 700 students, followed by a loss of nearly 1,100 students in 1973. By 1980, school enrollment was at 27,443, a loss of nearly 6,000 students.
In 1994 Michigan’s Schools of Choice law nullified any need to bus within the district since the law allowed students and parents to choose among different schools within the district and also to attend schools in other districts. Also, in 1994, the charter school law allowed schools to operate outside public school districts. Today there are more than 300 charter schools in Michigan.
Busing in Lansing was not fraught with the violence seen elsewhere in the state or country. In cities like Boston, Louisville and St. Louis, violence erupted over busing. In 1971 several states called out the National Guard to quell violence. In Pontiac, Michigan, four Ku Klux Klan members, including Robert Miles, a former Grand Dragon, torched 10 school buses on Aug. 30, 1971, in opposition to busing. All four were convicted and sent to prison.
“Busing had to happen,” educator Maxine Hankins Cain said. “It had its advantages and disadvantages. It was an experience white and black kids needed, and I needed too.”
“Kids weren’t that concerned about being bused, and they realized they had more in common than they thought with other kids who didn’t look like them. I’m sure it was the first time for many to see a black teacher with an Afro teaching in their school,” Cain said.
“Busing brought racism to the forefront. The North thought it was OK in the South, but it became a different story when it was in their backyard. It opened up my eyes as well,” Cain said.
“It is unfortunate it had to be forced by law and the courts,” she said.
Larry Wellington attended several different schools, including being bused from Kendon Elementary in south Lansing to Riddle on the west side in the late ‘70s.
“As a kid, I thought it was cool,” said Wellington, who is Hispanic. “I didn’t understand segregation, but I thought it was great meeting kids from other schools.” He also remembers being on the mostly black Kappa Express Pop Warner Football team.
“If busing hadn’t occurred, we wouldn’t have been in a better place,” he said.
Marcia Civils, who is African American, lived on West Street. She had planned on going to seventh and eighth grade at Main Street when her parents got a letter telling her she was going to be bused to Pattengill Junior High School. I was bummed out about that, especially not being around my friends, but I made new friends,” she said.
Following the recall of the Lansing School Board members, Lansing was faced with court challenges and decisions that seemingly every year changed who was to be bused and to what schools. Those challenges would continue through the ‘70s. Finality came in 1979 when Lansing’s busing dispute headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court decision by refusing to hear the appeal from a citizens group to prevent busing.
Politicians nationally and in Michigan actively opposed busing. In 1971, Nixon pressed Congress to pass a bill banning busing, which was narrowly defeated. Proposals to put a ban on busing on the Michigan ballot languished.
However, Governor Milliken, who was opposed to busing, entered into the dispute by suing the City of Detroit in 1974 over an attempt to enact a multi-district busing program in Detroit and 53 suburban school districts. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled busing could not take that form.
In the national debate, Sen. Joe Biden did not support busing, and nearly 50 years later in a presidential debate candidate. Kamala Harris called him out with her “that little girl was me” statement referring to having been bused in Berkeley, California. She neglected to mention that her experience was voluntary since Berkeley did not have required busing. Many cities across the U.S. attempted to offer voluntary busing as an alternative but were mostly turned down by the courts. Even liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., had proposed two amendments to prohibit busing.
Toward the end of the busing era in Lansing, Zig Olds, who is white and lived in the Colonial Village area, found himself on a bus filled with white kids heading to Main Street School.
Comparing class photos from that era elicits some confusing observations. In the early ‘60s, Main Street became nearly a 100 percent Black school, which class composites clearly show. But by the time Olds attended there from 1979-82, the student ratio turned from almost all Black to almost all white. Black elementary students who would have attended Main Street had been displaced with their families when I-496 was constructed and moved mostly to south Lansing. Children and parents knew so little about schools not in their neighborhood that the School District compiled a photographic album of all schools to show what they looked like.
The composites may show busing may have been used to fill schools so they wouldn’t close due to decreased enrollment. This wouldn’t be the first time this strategy was used by the Lansing Board of Education. As early as 1964 with the closure of the all-black Lincoln School, which was torn down to make room for I-496, and overcrowding at Main Street, Black elementary students were largely bused to the old Walnut Street elementary school.
Studies on the impact of busing on desegregation and racism abound and though the conclusions are amorphous, they generally found that busing had little or no impact on white students academically and that Black students increased academically only slightly. One study found that white students who had been bused ended up having more black friends and romantic interracial relationships.
Terri Mielock-Williams heartily agrees with the latter. Having grown up in a nearly all-white neighborhood of Groesbeck, she attended Post Oak Elementary School until the third grade. when she was bused to High St. Elementary School for fourth and fifth grade. In sixth grade she was bused to Grand River Elementary in north Lansing.
“Being bused totally opened up my world and it even opened up my world to socio-economic differences,” Mielock-Williams said.
“Being bused “helped me normalize people who are not just like me, and busing was an integral part of my life,” she said. Meilock-Williams married a Black man and has a 19-year-old biracial daughter and a tri-racial daughter.
Nicole Hannah-Jones, an architect of The New York Times “1619 Project,” which reframes the Black experience in America, wrote:
“That we even use the word “busing” to describe what was in fact court-ordered school desegregation, and that Americans of all stripes believe that the brief period in which we actually tried to desegregate our schools was a failure, speaks to one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of the last half century. Further, it explains how we have come to be largely silent — and accepting — of the fact that 65 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, Black children are as segregated from white students as they were in the mid-1970s.”