Rewriting Busing: New Histories of School Desegregation

AHA Session 76
Urban History Association 1
Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Mark R. Brilliant, University of California, Berkeley
Matthew Delmont, Arizona State University
Ansley T. Erickson, Teachers College, Columbia University
Brett V. Gadsden, Emory University
Tom I. Romero II, University of Denver

Session Abstract

Rewriting Busing: New Histories of School Desegregation

            For decades, historians have found their attention drawn to the question of how to interpret and narrate school desegregation. The topic has provided grist for examinations of civil rights litigation strategies, detailed social histories of African American communities in the era of segregation and desegregation, and of grassroots and elite organizing for resistance among white communities and institutions. The first decade of the 21stcentury brought a new set of works that situated school desegregation efforts within the “rightward turn” of the late 1960s and 1970s.

            This roundtable features new directions in the study of school desegregation’s most dramatic intervention – busing across neighborhood lines. These works engage school desegregation in relationship to urban and metropolitan history, media studies, and legal history, and through new chronological and geographical frames. They expand beyond a more familiar focus on moments of peak protest over busing to consider how approaches to desegregation evolved in local context over decades, and how understandings (or misunderstandings) of segregation’s origins informed or constrained efforts at desegregation. 

            Matt Delmont’s Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation  (University of California Press, 2016) traces the formation and impact of national media narratives about busing that limited desegregation’s political fortunes and reach. Ansley Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis: School Desegregation and Its Limits (University of Chicago Press, 2016) uses Nashville, Tennessee – home of one of the nation’s most extensive metropolitan desegregation plans - to illustrate how statistical desegregation and persistent educational inequality developed together. Brett Gadsden’s Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) shows how desegregation depended upon shifting burdens from white suburbanites to black communities, undercutting black support for desegregation. Tom Romero II’s work in progress on Denver’s Keyes desegregation case moves the conversation beyond the black-white binary to explore how desegregation evolved in a growing multiracial Western metropolis. The roundtable will be chaired and moderated by Mark Brilliant, whose own work locates school desegregation and educational equity in the context of multiracial civil rights struggles.

            A conversation about the history of school desegregation – and the political uses to which that history has been put - is particularly timely. After two decades in which desegregation seemed a political and legal impossibility, new attention to school desegregation is emerging in the media and education advocacy circles. If desegregation is to emerge again as a focus of policy, the complex history of desegregation’s earlier phases must help guide the way.

            With a combination of three locally-focused case studies and one more national view, the roundtable also engages the conference them of “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience.” Participants and audience members will have the opportunity to discuss what has been gained, and what has been lost, by the case-study orientation of much scholarship on desegregation, and to question how new national views interact with and help inform these local perspectives.

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