Book sheds new light on Detroit busing case

By Art Aisner

The Legal News

While countless legal scholars, academics and social activists have written about Brown v. Board of Education and school desegregation in America, comparatively little has been penned on a landmark case generated in Detroit that shaped how courts viewed the controversial issue of busing. Until now.

"The Detroit School Busing Case: Milliken v. Bradley and the Controversy over Desegregation," is a comprehensive study of the U.S. Supreme Court's provocative decision to reverse integration plans in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs in the 1970s.

Authored by Central Michigan University Professor Joyce Baugh, the book was published in February by the University Press of Kansas and is part of its Landmark Law Cases and American Society series.

Baugh was recently named the guest speaker at this year's annual luncheon for the U.S. District Court Historical Society and will share reflections of her four-year journey to get it published in November.

"This was burning, something I wanted to do for a long time," said Baugh, who joined CMU's political science faculty in 1988 and teaches constitutional law and civil liberties. "When we studied this case and so many of my students from the suburbs had never even heard of it, I began to realize why the case was so important."

Brought by the parents of Detroit Public School students who were backed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1970, the suit alleged that the district was racially segregated by policy and violated the principles of Brown v. Board Education, decided in 1954.

Former U.S. District Judge Stephen Roth agreed and developed an integration plan that mandated 54 school districts in metropolitan Detroit begin bussing students into the city.

The state appealed the case all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, which under a new conservative majority, reversed the ruling in 1974.

In their controversial 5-4 decision, the justices found that Roth's remedy to bus white suburban students to Detroit's predominantly black schools was unconstitutional because there was no evidence the suburban districts deliberately engaged in segregation. Furthermore, those districts had not had a chance to argue their position before Roth's ruling.

The ensuing legal battle took another 15 years and a second Supreme Court decision to resolve.

"It is one of the seminal cases in the litany of cases involving school desegregation that went before the Supreme Court twice," said U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who was appointed to the case in 1978 and ultimately concluded it nearly a decade later.

Baugh, 51, grew up in South Carolina during the post Jim Crow-era but wasn't part of an integrated classroom until the fifth grade. By the time she entered Clemson University, however, the campus was bustling with diversity and showed the promise of what mixing cultures and races together could hold for her future.

Change, surprisingly to her, came slower up north. She recalls the blatant segregation still apparent in schools and communities in northeast Ohio while seeking her master's and Ph.D. at Kent State University.

And she began to wonder how so little had changed despite the Civil Rights Movement.

Though always interested in law as a possible career, she said she was smitten with the academic environment and found her calling teaching others about how the legal process impacts American society.

She has authored three other books on different facets of the U.S. Supreme Court, but she admits none involved the amount of research and personal anguish this project entailed. She spent countless hours interviewing many of the attorneys and judges involved in Milliken vs. Bradley, and scouring the NAACP files and personal papers of four Supreme Court justices to compile the book.

Baugh carefully explores the racial disparities and tensions across the region at the time, and crafts the political, social and legal framework for why the case arose and how multiple levels of the federal judiciary dealt with it.

She concludes that whether intended or not, the case helped perpetuate the color line in the metro Detroit area and set the stage for race relations and the Detroit Public Schools' struggles for decades to come.

"In some ways, doing the research and writing was painful because my emotions ran back and forth between anger and sadness," she explained. "I was angry about the folks that allowed this to happen and the realization that it didn't have to be this way."

By 1989, the demographics and economics of metro Detroit changed so dramatically that the principles the case was built on were moot. The NAACP, the driving force behind the initial suit and the ensuing legal battle over mandating state funds for desegregation, had long since moved on to other priorities.

Without them, there was no one really to fight on for the plaintiffs, Judge Cohn recalled, and little reason for the court's continued involvement. The Detroit native dismissed the case without a press conference and no public outcry.

"It went out without much of a bang . . . but most of the issues had dissipated, no question," Judge Cohn said. "The school district had an entirely different configuration."

The case, however, did unearth important principles established by the Supreme Court that still designate the lawsuit as the first major desegregation case outside of the south, he said.

First, school desegregation could not be used as a remedy to discrimination unless that discrimination was clear and intentional, a point that Judge Cohn notes was never really litigated.

Secondly, for the first time, the court recognized that a segregated school district is not just a matter of racial demographics, but that it had tangible educational components that left a lasting impact on the students.

Baugh said the case still has relevance today, and when dissected, shows the current struggles of the Detroit Public Schools can be traced to that era. Already under-resourced and coping with a dwindling tax base due to manufacturing losses and crime, the city and its class and racial divides were reinforced by the Supreme Court's ruling, she said.

"The crisis prohibited the movement of teachers and resources," she said. "And once that cycle was put in motion, it didn't stop. You can't look at Detroit's shortcomings without looking at the Milliken case."

Baugh said that by looking back, she hopes to help Detroit schools move forward.

"I'm hoping that this book will help people rethink the negativity and hostility directed toward the Detroit schools for so long and try to remedy some of the problems without just pointing the finger in anger and then throwing our hands up in the air in frustration."

Published: Mon, Jun 27, 2011

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