Book review manuscript accepted for publication:
Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, “Review of ‘Why Busing Failed’ by Matthew Delmont,” History of Education Quarterly 57, no. 1 (January 2017). Text copyrighted by History of Education Society and shared here under terms of the contributor agreement.
Matthew F. Delmont. Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016. 304 pp. Paperback, $29.95. Companion website with multimedia sources, http://whybusingfailed.com.
Matthew Delmont’s insightful book challenges us to rethink the history of “busing,” a word he intentionally places in quotation marks to emphasize its rise as a rhetorical strategy. Prior to the 1954 Brown decision, riding the school bus had been a white privilege in the rural South, particularly as it passed by (and sometimes splashed mud on) black children who walked the road to segregated schools. But as the school integration movement headed to the North and West in the 1960s and 1970s, white parents and politicians resisted by reframing their objections as a crisis over “busing” and “neighborhood schools.” In this way, whites advanced their own agendas and pushed black students’ moral and legal claims off the political stage, while avoiding explicitly racist language. The national news media was complicit in this rhetorical shift, he argues. As school desegregation battles moved from the Jim Crow South to northern and western states, big-city newspapers and television networks covered these events with less moral clarity, and sometimes open hostility, in their own backyards. Trained in American Studies, Delmont argues that we cannot comprehend this period solely through policy debates and courtroom proceedings. In addition, we must focus on local anti-integration protests, and the national politics and televised nightly news broadcasts that elevated their cause, to understand the rise of the busing narrative and its broader consequences.
In this wide-ranging study, chapters flow back and forth between two levels of analysis. The book opens with local battles over school integration (in New York City and Chicago, and later in Boston and Pontiac, Michigan) and expands to incorporate national politics and media coverage (primarily in Washington, DC, big-city newspapers, and the three major television news networks at that time: NBC, CBS, and ABC). The first chapter, on New York City, begins with the 1964 black and Puerto Rican school boycott for a desegregation plan, followed by the white parent protest against busing. Delmont skillfully demonstrates how this school boycott and counterprotest led to a dilemma for northern politicians just as Congress began debate on the Civil Rights Act. Northern members of Congress were content with desegregation in the South, but explicitly sought to protect their states from any required busing to correct racial imbalance. Delmont keenly points out that the southern members of Congress highlighted white resistance to busing in New York City to make their point against desegregation in the South and northern hypocrisy on racial segregation in general. In this chapter, New York City, whose school districts contained the largest black student population in the country, is centered in the national discourse on desegregation. Nevertheless, as Delmont reminds the reader, the media minimized the mass demands of black and Puerto Rican activists for school desegregation, while a minor white parent protest was elevated and used as evidence that busing was simply unreasonable.
The second chapter revisits Chicago’s pivotal clash with federal officials over desegregation in 1965. Activists filed a complaint with the US Office of Education claiming that Chicago Public Schools was in violation of the Civil Rights Act with regard to racial discrimination and segregation. For a brief time, the federal government agreed with the complaint and withheld $30 million in funding from the district. But, under pressure from Chicago’s Mayor Daley, President Johnson’s administration relented and eventually released the funds. The clash was pivotal because it signaled the collapse of any possible federal enforcement of desegregation outside of the southern states—news that circulated nationally.
The third city, Boston, is the culminating northern location where substantial black civil rights activism became overshadowed by white resistance to busing. Black protest against segregation and grassroots actions such as Operation Exodus led to the passage of the Massachusetts Racial Imbalance Act in 1965. In response, the media elevated white resistance to busing and transformed Boston school committee member Louise Day Hicks into an antibusing icon. For years, Hicks “led a committee which for years had prioritized the preferences and expectations of white parents over the rights of black students” (pp. 84–85). Why Busing Failed stands in sharp contrast to J. Anthony Lukas’s well-known book on Boston, Common Ground (1985), which Delmont critiques for featuring three families who disliked busing and ignoring the local history of black activism for integrated schools.
Delmont spends the remainder of the book’s chapters examining the national discussion on desegregation, now framed as “busing.” Chapter 4 documents the bipartisan and national political opposition to school desegregation. Chapter 5 chronicles Richard Nixon’s “antibusing” presidency, particularly his television appearances on the subject. Chapter 6 analyzes how national television news covered antibusing activist Irene McCabe and her grassroots movement in Pontiac, Michigan. Chapter 7 focuses on the complexity of black opinions about school desegregation and common understanding of the busing frame as antiblack racial code. The book concludes with a review of television coverage of Boston’s busing crisis in 1974. Throughout these chapters, Delmont consistently reminds the reader how the media framed desegregation as busing and the importance of northern urban politics to this national discourse.
Delmont’s most significant contribution is his creative interpretation of how national television and print media framed busing “as the common-sense way to describe, debate, and oppose school desegregation” (p. 6). In addition to conventional archival and legal sources, he analyzed over ten thousand reports from white daily and black weekly newspapers, along with dozens of hours of television news archives, to explain how media economics and technology shaped news coverage. Moreover, Delmont exemplifies historical scholarship in the digital age by sharing selected video, photo, and documentary evidence, along with extensive excerpts from his book, on a companion website (http://whybusingfailed.com). Pairing multimedia evidence with the narrative makes a more compelling argument than the book alone, for both scholars and students, and the book’s companion site is ideal for educational use, organized around the theme of “12 Ways to Teach ‘Busing’ Differently.” Educational historians also may be interested in Delmont’s companion site for his previous book, The Nicest Kids in Town (2012), which features video and images on civil rights struggles and youth culture regarding the 1950s American Bandstand television program (http://nicestkids.com). Overall, Why Busing Failed is a must-read for historians and policy analysts of civil rights and school desegregation.
Robert Cotto Jr. and Jack Dougherty, Trinity College