Sargent Shriver on Busing at Cooper Union Forum

"We have come too far and at too great a cost to be turned back from our commitment to racial justice because some politicians, whatever their standing, seek votes in dividing, rather than binding, the spirit of America."
New York City, NY • October 20, 1975

No candidate for the Presidency can come to Cooper Union and fail to recall the most important words ever spoken here. The “mystic chords of memory” go back to the major speeches given in this hall by William Lloyd Garrison and Susan B. Anthony, calling for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage. But above all, as we embark on a Presidential campaign, we would do well to remember the speech Lincoln gave here on February 27th, 1860.

A snowstorm cut the attendance that night. At the end, Lincoln took a horse-drawn streetcar back to his hotel alone, wondering if his words could reach the angry minds of the white Southern slaveholders and the fiery Northern abolitionists. Slavery and the Union were the central issues dividing the nation, and Lincoln said what he had to say so clearly that in the rest of the campaign he hardly gave another speech on the subject.

Today, we hear the question put, “Are you for or against busing?”, as if a simple “yes” or “no” answer is possible. People on either side have closed their ears to those on the other.

Tonight, I invite people on both sides to listen, just as Cooper Union invites each of us to open ears that have long been closed and to lift sights from simplistic battle cries to larger questions. And for Cooper Union, on the eve of America’s two hundredth anniversary, there is no more appropriate subject that education – the education that alone can make this Republic the society our founders dreamed it would become.

In addressing this subject, I will lean on Lincoln, who in his talk here leaned on Jefferson. For we need to rediscover the truths, and the ways of seeking truth, which Jefferson and Lincoln held to be self-evident. When a member of the House Judiciary Committee read the Watergate tapes transcript, he went home depressed and red the Federalist Papers to clear his mind. In the next day’s hearings, he asked, “How did we fall so far from the Federalist Papers to these Watergate tapes?”

The falling off has come in part from a failure of American education. Let us note that Lincoln, one of the wisest and best-educated of all Americans, attended school for less than three and a half years in all his life. Reading and rereading Shakespeare, Blackstone, and the bible, he learned how to learn. For this nation to recover its capacity for self-government, we must learn how to teach that lesson of self-education to all Americans.

Another reason for the falling off in public discourse is a political cynicism more pervasive now that ever before in our history. I am convinced that the people’s cynicism about politicians rises and falls with the politicians’ cynicism about people. And rarely has there been more political cynicism than over the most divisive educational issue of our day – the issue of busing.

So let me speak plainly about busing, and about the larger questions that lie behind it. No candidate for office, no holder of high office, and certainly no President of the United States, has a right to exploit the emotions aroused by race. We have come too far and at too great a cost to be turned back from our commitment to racial justice because some politicians, whatever their standing, seek votes in dividing, rather than binding, the spirit of America.

To advocate, in whatever words, separate and equal solutions to the problem of segregated schools is to mislead the people about the reality of segregated education and about the law of the land. It is to use concepts like quality education as mere code words, calculated to advance the speaker’s political interest at any cost to the country. Richard Nixon clawed to power by playing upon post-war fears Gerald Ford exploits the busing issue by opposing what courts have ordered without saying a word about how he would comply with the commands of conscience or of Constitution. This kind of politics appeals to the worst in each of us.

As it was for Lincoln, the test of leadership today is to summon the better angels of our nature. There are many frustrations in modern life which a demagogue can invoke. He may win passing applause and perhaps even votes, but if he releases the worst instincts in people, we will reap the whirlwind. More than ever in this interdependent world, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

It is a national tragedy when we see mothers and father and children, black and white, facing each other behind lines of helmeted police. How long must this endure?

Busing may not be the right cure – in many cities, it clearly is not – but it is not the cause of the sickness in our national soul. Behind everything there is still the sin and curse of slavery, and the fact that for black Americans, the way up through hard work and education was closed in the South by force of law, closed by government policies that combined with private action to create racial ghettos and urban decay.

In the last century, failure of leadership to rise to the occasion and end slavery peacefully led to a Civil War that Lincoln was too late to prevent. Failure in leadership in the last half of this century has led to widespread civil strife, turning some of our cities into battle zones. For too many years, we have relied too exclusively on the courts. Until 1957, when Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction and established the Commission on Civil Rights, the Supreme Court stood nearly alone in guarding the constitutional rights of black Americans. For a few brief years in the 1960’s, before the Vietnam War engulfed us, all three branches of the United States Government were at work to end discrimination in all parts of our public life. Already it was too late. Patterns of segregation were deep-rooted, sustained by local, state, and national policies and laws. But there was confidence that, together, we would overcome.

That forward movement was halted and reversed in the decade of violence that followed. Assassinations and riots at home and war abroad diverted our resources and distorted our vision. A peculiar new prescription for black Americans was preached and practiced – the doctrine of “benign neglect.”

Since then, Congressional efforts to meet the essential needs of people, especially in areas of poverty, have been blocked by Presidents or whom black Americans and poor Americans are not worth counting. At this late hour, what does Gerald Ford do as his contribution to the school and racial crisis? He invites to the White House, for his one and only known high-level conference on busing, Senator Tower of Texas and a group of people who, over the years, have contributed little or nothing to improving either the economic or educational well-being of poor and middle-class Americans.

On busing, two strong sides contend. Each represents a judgment and a feeling rooted in conscience and common sense. Neither can be destroyed by force. If the two are not brought together – if there is no healing and no reunion – if on the contrary the event is left to force itself, then as Jefferson said of slavery, “Human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.”

To the white parents of children involved in busing plans, I say this: I know you care about you children, their safety and their education, as much as anything in the world. I know you respect the Constitution, but you do not want your children sacrificed on the altar of abstract principle. Many of you are yourselves the children and grandchildren of economically and politically exploited immigrants – working people who came to this country with dreams the could hope to realize only through neighborhood solidarity and, above all, family cohesion. Many of you have been sacrificed and exploited yourselves; you have had less chance that some to climb or flee; you have borne more than your share of society’s burdens. You do not want to keep black children from an opportunity for good education and a decent life, but you are proud of where you live, and busing you child out of your own neighborhood to an inferior distant school makes no sense to you. Such worries as you have over busing are not motivated by ideas of racism, but by concern over the welfare of your children. I ask you to join me and your black fellow citizens, many of whom are also disillusioned by busing, in finding better ways to accomplish what the Constitution and your conscience and mine call for.

To black parents, who care just as much about their children’s safety and education, I say this: You have waited a long time – too long – to win your constitutional rights. You want your children to have the opportunity you may have missed for a good education, and for this you are willing to have your children travel to a better school, if it is their one clear chance to a better life. But you justly resent the double insult that your children can succeed only in white schools and that they will drag those schools down, just as you resent the idea that some schools are good enough for you but not for others. And especially to those of you for whom neighborhoods have been prisons built by others instead of homes you have chosen, the talk of “neighborhood” may sound a hollow note. I ask you, too, to join in a search for a way out of the present impasse.

To people in the many communities where school desegregation has been successful through great effort, often including busing, I would say this: There will be no reversal of the process of emancipation and integration begun by Lincoln and now rightly required by the Supreme Court. We must learn from your experience what works and what does not work to accomplish the objective of equal and good education for all.

To people of the South, who in so many areas have attained a new level of racial understanding, I say the lessons you have learned by your respect for the law in ending segregation prove that the law can sometimes be a great teacher. It would not be right or fair to you to let this Constitutionally mandated process stop as it moves North just because the patterns of de facto segregation in metropolitan areas may be more subtle and complex and involve many other ethnic groups.

What course, then, do we chart? I propose no panaceas. There is no quick or certain cure. Still, there are choices, and there is promise of progress if we choose well. But to choose well, above all we must think clearly and understand as fully as we are able. And that is why I have chosen this occasion to set forth, in detail, my views on this profoundly difficult and delicate subject.

Because court orders and constitutional principles lie at the core of this controversy, it is vital to be precise about the legal history and status of the busing issue. The history of course starts with Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision which established that public school students could not legally be segregated by race. Ever since Brown was decided in 1954, the principle that the Constitution forbids such segregation has been beyond dispute; it must be beyond dispute today.

Controversy has centered on the question of remedies: What is government’s responsibility where school segregation has been created by law or by the actions of officials? In the New Kent County case decided in 1969, the Supreme Court defined government’s responsibility in affirmative terms: Wherever government has segregated, it must take all steps necessary to desegregate – to create a unitary school system instead of a dual one. It is not enough, in a system previously segregated by state action, for government to institute “freedom of choice” where such freedom proves so illusory that it yields no real desegregation. In New Kent County, as in many other places, busing had in fact been used to preserve a segregated system.

The use of busing to dismantle segregation reached the Supreme Court for the first time in the 1971 Charlotte-Mecklenburg case. There, the Court ruled that “desegregation plans cannot be limited to the walk-in school.” When busing is found necessary to eliminate the effects of state-enforced segregation, a federal court may employ busing; and any state or other law flatly banning the use of court-ordered busing to desegregate is unconstitutional unless desegregation is otherwise assured. Thus, much of the talk these days about absolute legislative bans on busing is a fraud.

But in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and two companion cases, the Supreme Court stressed four factors that are of paramount importance in understanding the constitutional role of the busing remedy: Courts must consider the practicalities of the situation in which they act; they must not confuse desegregation with rigid racial quotas for each school; they should not order busing that impairs the health, safety or education of the children involved; and they should not intervene unless and until school boards have defaulted in their obligation to dismantle segregation.

To me, these four factors suggest a way out of our current impasse. They suggest that constitutional law and common sense can become allies instead of enemies in the search for desegregation and effective education for all. The factors stressed by the Supreme Court of the United States all point to a single conclusion: The time has come for a pragmatic search for racial justice – not a retreat, but an insistence on workable solution.

Correctly understood, the Court has said what I have argued ever since I served as President of the Chicago Board of Education 20 years ago: Busing should not be used to desegregate if other alternatives are available, if it cannot be expected to work, if it would cause more segregation that it cures, or if it would endanger the health and safety or injure the education of the children involved. When any of these conditions is present, busing must not be ordered. As President, I would propose specific legislation to codify and implement these standards.

The striking thing to me is that these standards, all fairly inferable from Supreme Court decisions, represent what many on both sides of the busing controversy really want. All of us have been shouting too loud to notice that pragmatism and constitutional principle needn’t be at war after all. Instead of arguing about amending the Constitution the ban busing, more people should have been reading the opinions of the Court they were so eager to reverse.

The fact is that busing, which is obviously counterproductive and divisive in some cities, has worked well in others. Millions of children, after all – the vast majority of those bused – are bused for purposed unrelated to integration. Ours is a diverse nation. We need a diversity of approaches. Amending the Constitution made sense after the Civil War, when a uniform principle of racial equality had to be proclaimed as fundamental law. It makes no sense in today’s context, when uniform principles overlook the complexity of the problems we face.

The root of those problems is not to be found in the Constitution at all. Their root is the lack of commitment, imagination and leadership all the way from local school boards to the White House. There are many places where creativity and energy have been directed toward combining integration with effective education; the results have been cooperation and progress, often eliminating the necessity for judicial action or even the need for a lawsuit. When busing is required, it must be preceded by sensitive plans formulated by those most knowledgeable about local conditions. And if court-ordered busing is to be only a last resort, as Congress sensibly mandated in 1974, the we will have to discover and implement alternate solutions. Indeed, if the courts themselves are to be a last resort, as I think they should – and not the only resort – then the rest us have plenty of work to do:

  • We need less talk and more action about magnet schools, schools whose special academic or vocational features make them attractive enough to draw students of different races together on a voluntary basis;
  • We need less gerrymandering of school districts and more drawing of boundaries designed to increase integration;
  • We need school site selection that maximizes integration;
  • We need more integration at the level of staff and faculty;
  • We need more metropolitan school programs, programs which make the city itself a teaching tool for urban and suburban children alike.

Some of these efforts will be beyond the capacity of unaided local resources, so we need an adequate system of state and federal financial support, not Ford vetoes of education bills, for all these approaches and other like them, including discretionary awards to schools which overcome unusual difficulty or achieve more quality and integration than expected.

Such programs, I believe, have more appeal and more positive results than busing – because they are designed to attract rather than coerce, and because they respond not only to the need for the integrated education but to the need for better education – for all our children. Schools which don’t educate fail black and whites alike. If we can match the universal desire for effective education to programs which promote desegregation, we will have advanced the cause of racial justice well beyond what busing – even under the best of circumstances – could achieve.

If such things were to be done, the forced busing of youngsters to schools which are clearly inferior to those which they now attend would no longer be necessary. That would be great news for families. Instead, every youngster of every race would be afforded a meaningful opportunity to voluntarily achieve what his family wants and what America clearly can provide – a better education for all. That would be great news for America.

If school boards and local officials do not default in the search for desegregation -- if the make honest efforts instead of obstructing progress and dragging their heels – then as the Supreme Court said in 1971, judicial intervention will be both unnecessary and improper. That will be a great day for every citizen black and white.

But we must recognize that not all the blame belongs to schools and the boards that govern them. And certainly the blame should not fall upon the teachers, who often make heroic efforts to work within a system that is often unworkable. Ultimately, it is the teachers who have to make up for what the rest of us have failed to do. Indeed, here in New York City, it is the teachers’ union which supplied the fund to stave off temporary bankruptcy – at least for the moment.

Especially in the North, the real cause of school segregation is often racially discriminatory employment, zoning, real estate and housing practices, highway and credit policies and government decisions. Courts have begun to consider the possibility of area-wide judicial relief where housing, zoning, or other non-school authorities have caused urban-suburban racial segregation.

In the 1974 Detroit decision, the Supreme Court ruled that interdistrict busing should not be required unless district lines have been drawn with the purpose of racial segregation, or the actions of one district have cause segregation in another. Inter-district busing thus remains a legal remedy only in a limited set of situations. But why shouldn’t we act to head off any need for such remedies by attacking residential segregation directly?

What we need are ways to avoid flight to the suburbs, not ways to accelerate it. Legislative attacks on red-lining, job discrimination and other practices that trap minorities in the central city and impoverish their efforts to improve their lot would be a useful first step. And government programs to insure the risk of investing in the inner city would be a helpful second step. We need to recognize that adults can often bear the burden of remedy far more easily than children. Schools cannot be used to solve by themselves problems that go as deeps as those of racially separated living.

The ultimate alternate to the stopgap measure of busing is the dismantling of the dual housing market and the achievement of equal housing opportunity for all Americans. Effective enforcement of fair housing laws can help. Citizens efforts to achieve fair housing voluntarily can be even more vital. Support for the construction of low and moderate income housing is indispensable. All over this country, local groups which have been on the opposite side of the fair housing issue are coming together in coalitions aimed at opening their communities to minorities and women. And national housing groups and trade associations are joining in the development of voluntary fair housing programs. Americans are using their own resources and devoting their own time to making this nation truly a nation of neighbors.

No Presidential candidate, and no President, can make that happen alone. But a President can summon the people to a higher ground from which possible solutions can be seen. Tonight, I have sought to find that higher ground. As President, I would seek to implement the approaches it suggests.

That task deserves that highest priority, because there is no hope for our country if black and white Americans are not brought together. And there is no hope if our children – black and white – are denied full, as well as equal, educational opportunity.

That involves more than busing and more even than education alone can achieve. When street crime, juvenile delinquency, venereal disease, child battering, alcoholism, drug dependency, and family desertion are becoming epidemic, no President can blandly pretend that these are not among the most essential concerns of Government. And when our children commit suicide at rates 2 to 3 times as high as just 20 years ago, no President can fail to see that our future is imperiled.

In recent years we have seen our Presidents relinquishing their traditional concern with the quality of personal and family life as leaders of a nation of people. We have seen them grapple with those large abstractions which delight columnists and historians while neglecting the day-by-day realities which make up the substance of human life.

As President, I would turn upside down the emphasis and preoccupation of the American Presidency, diverting it from the big and the powerful to a concern for the small and the powerless. For how can the President of the United States pretend to be a leader of the family of nations if he is not first the leader of this nation of families.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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