Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Martin

Desegregation: Another look

One activist thinks that school desegregation is not always desirable, and can even hurt minorities

First Published: The Call, Vol. 9, No. 26, June 30, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following article was submitted to The Call by John Martin. An activist in the civil rights movement in Milwaukee since 1966. We invite other comments from our readers on the question of school desegregation.

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Should court-ordered desegregation plans in some cases be opposed by progressive-minded people? Can school desegregation plans actually become an attack on minority communities rather than a benefit? Is the solution in school desegregation rapidly becoming the problem?

A recent conference sponsored by the interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) answered these questions “yes.” In the view of the conference organizers, school desegregation is a new form of discrimination against Black people and other minorities.

Keynote speaker Harvard professor Derrick Bell pointed out that the famous Brown vs. Board of Education decision required “the elimination of all barriers to an equal education for all Black children.” Bell also asserted that Brown did not require that integration and “forced busing” be the answer to substandard and unequal schools. “Should it be a violation of the law,” Bell, asked, “for the Black community to want to preserve its own schools?”


In 1974, Boston’s integration plan was fully supported by progressives as the freedom of choice of the Black community, a form of self-determination. The Call, along with most justice-loving people, stood foursquare behind the right of Black children to attend South Boston High or any school in the city.

Since then in many cities, including Boston, desegregation plans have resulted in Black schools being closed, long bus rides for Black and white kids, continued racial hostility, and educational levels not being raised.

This experience raises for us some important questions. Should we oppose busing plans that cause harm to minority communities? And, if so, how? Is “integration” always the goal of the struggle of Black and minority communities concerning school desegregation? Finally, how can unity be built between Black and white if some schools stay racially separate?


Milwaukee was seen as a good example of the problem by the IFCO conference. More than one-third of all Black children are bused compared to only 3% of whites. This is what is commonly referred to as one-way busing which forces Blacks to bear the burden for desegregation. Many Black children are not allowed to go to their neighborhood school, but instead are bused as much as two hours each way to white schools to achieve “racial balance.”

Does a Black child get better grades in an “integrated” school? Not in Milwaukee, Grade point averages have not climbed as a result of busing and, in fact, all-Black schools claim some of the highest grade averages for Blacks. More than 60% of all Black teenagers bused to predominantly white Pulaski High flunked last year. The drop-out rate for Blacks is higher in the “desegregated” schools than in Black schools.

Evidence in Milwaukee suggests that the stress of being bused across town, confronting a sometimes hostile environment, and being dispersed and severed from their own cultural surroundings has not helped Milwaukee Black children learn.

One of the worst results of the Milwaukee desegregation plan has been the widespread closings of Black schools in order to achieve “racial balance.” King and Lincoln Highs have already been closed as “attendance-area” schools, and if North would be closed that would leave only one attendance-area high school in the traditional Black community.

The struggle over North Division highlights the controversy over desegregation. After a 15-year struggle by parents, this $21 million high school was built in the heart of Milwaukee’s Black northside. Parents wanted to have a high school that would be able to provide the setting for a quality education for their children.

But no sooner did North open, than the School Board announced it would be part of the desegregation plan and Black students from the area could no longer automatically attend. Under the plan. North would become a medical and technical specialty school geared for the middle class. The all-Black school was called a “cesspool” and “concentration camp for underachievers” that had to be cleared out so whites would come in.

This kind of “desegregation” was opposed by the Black community. Using rallies, lawsuits, and student strikes, the Coalition to Save North Division finally won its demands on April 24 after a year-long battle. The school board was unwilling to force whites to go to North and able to find only 40 whites willing to be bused there.

Related to the closing of Black schools is Milwaukee’s plan for redevelopment. Many Blacks are aware that the city plans to level much of the Black northside to expand the adjacent downtown and bring the middle class back from the suburbs. The fight over North heightened these fears that the new school was built to attract the middle class and at the same time lead to the dispersal of “lower-class” Blacks.

Reaction to the desegregation plan in Milwaukee has been varied.

Some activists criticize it mainly for not going far enough. They argue that the burden of busing should be placed equally on whites and Blacks. These people generally believe racial balance in the schools is the goal of the struggle. “We don’t want to go back to the way it was in the past.” explained one Black parent.

Others in the Coalition to Save North criticize one-way busing, but also want North to remain an attendance-area (mainly Black) school.

Howard Fuller, leader of the Coalition, criticizes the liberals who support desegregation “no matter what happens to the Black community.” The Black parents who fought successfully to save North did so mainly because they wanted quality education in a neighborhood school.

“We have to make sure the community has input into what the nature of the school is going to be, how it’s going to operate, what kind of educational program will go in it,” Fuller explains.

Some people argue that to take a position against court-ordered desegregation plans plays into the hands of the racists. However, others point out that in the past there has been a tactical alliance with the liberals in the government in order to break down legal barriers to integration. And at the Milwaukee conference several speakers asserted their right to use the contradictions between the liberals and reactionaries in different ways.

For instance, in Milwaukee, the die-hard supporters of the closing of North were the liberals on the School Board, including all three Black members. They maintained North must be integrated and racial quotas set in all schools regardless of the consequences. To defeat this liberal scheme, the Coalition was forced to make a temporary alliance with segregationist forces on the school board in order to preserve North as a facility for the Black community.

The 1980s are beginning with the advent of the biggest economic crisis since 1974. Historically, during economic crises the Black freedom struggle intensifies and expands and the reactionary forces of segregation and racism rise.

Our understanding of desegregation must start with the facts and examine both the policies of the avowed segregationists and the “integrationist” liberals. In Milwaukee, the busing plan, as it is, has had a negative effect on the Black community. The experience of the Milwaukee busing plan has prompted some Black community leaders to demand “community control” of their schools instead of proceeding with desegregation.


The Milwaukee IFCO conference and the experience of North Division suggest a growing sentiment in the Black communities across the country for such a “nationalist” policy. They see community control of schools as an essential part of Black power in the cities.

This rise in nationalism should be expected. Black theoretician Harry Haywood predicted in Black Bolshevik that the Black liberation movement would “ultimately take an autonomous direction toward political power as a guarantee for equality.”

Echoes of the ’60s slogan “Black Power” can be heard once again in northern cities as well as through-out the South. I think this is a significant, positive development. Haywood also writes, “Without the perspective of political power, the Negro people’s movement is reduced to an impotent appeal to the conscience of humanitarian instincts of the country and the world.”


It seems to me that some desegregation plans, like the one in Milwaukee, have made the building of multinational unity a more complicated and difficult process. The Milwaukee conference presented a challenge to us to seriously examine the particulars of each desegregation plan, the class forces ranged on each side, the sentiment of the minority communities, and the long- and short-range effects of each plan. The conference stressed that the final judgment on any plan mast be left to the Black parents, students and community affected by it.

As W.E.B. DuBois wrote in studying segregated schools back in 1935: “There will be cases where it will be perfectly clear that segregation must be accepted at present and that within segregated boundaries we can work for the best development of the Negro race. There will be other cases where it will be just as clear, that any increase and encouragement of segregation will not only be bad for Negroes but for white people and in addition to that there will be any number of cases where the proper action will be puzzling and indecisive, where we must grope in an experimental way to see what proves best for us and the world.”