For my write-up today on Nixon’s Civil Rights, I’ll use as my starting-point something that Dean Kotlowski says on pages 42-43:
“Nixon continued to argue that integration via busing was unconstitutional, even after the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise. Realizing the unpopularity of busing, liberals of both parties shunned it. In 1964 New York Senatorial candidate Robert F. Kennedy opposed the ‘compulsory transportation of children over long distances’ on the grounds that it ‘doesn’t make much sense.’ Hubert Humphrey also began distancing himself from this tactic, and Nelson Rockefeller signed a bill forbidding busing without the consent of the school boards. ‘The Democrats weren’t all that excited about busing, either,’ recalled George McGovern. ‘It is not the happiest way to deal with civil rights issues, so I never felt that it was one of [the Nixon administration’s] chief failings.’ The high court got the message. In Milliken v. Bradley (1974), it rejected a comprehensive plan for racial integration across district lines in Detroit’s school system. While some busing proceeded, most notably in Boston, the issue faded as Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan opposed forced integration.”
My favorite Picket Fences episode was the two parter about busing. Paul Winfield plays an African-American judge who orders the Rome, Wisconsin public school system to accept a certain number of African-American students from a nearby neighborhood. The Rome town fathers are scared by this, for they fear that it will mean that troublemakers will come to Rome’s schools, and so they send a lawyer to the judge to argue that the school cannot accept the African-American students due to overcrowding. The judge sarcastically responds that he is sympathetic, and so he orders Rome to send some of its white students to a school in the African-American neighborhood. The result is outrage, as parents in Rome fear that their kids will have to go to an inferior school in a high-crime area. The people of Rome decide to defy the judge, at the risk of losing federal benefits (i.e., mail service). At the end of one of the episodes (perhaps it was Part I, or Part II), Sheriff Jimmy Brock (played by Tom Skerritt) is with his squadron outside of the Rome school, holding up his gun and preparing to turn the bus of African-American students back. But right behind the bus are federal troops, sent to insure that the African-American students will get to go to Rome’s school without any problems. Sheriff Brock backs down. And, in the end, the Judge gives in and rescinds his order for white students to be sent to the African-American school. But he reaffirms that African-American students will still come to Rome.
When I was working in South Boston one summer, I talked with some people who knew about the anti-busing marches that occurred there in the 1970’s. One person said that the situation was like what I described above concerning Picket Fences: a judge was ordering white students to attend a school in an African-American neighborhood. Of course, the difference was that the judge himself sent his kids to private school, so his kids were immune from what he was imposing on others!
I have problems with some objections against busing: that it brings trouble to white neighborhoods, that white kids will be sent to bad African-American areas, etc. I mean, why are poor, run-down, crime-infested schools good enough for African-Americans but not for whites? They shouldn’t be acceptable for anybody! I can somewhat sympathize with concerns that I’ve heard from African-American opponents of busing, however, which (if I recall correctly) Pat Buchanan echoed in one of his columns: that busing undermines African-American neighborhoods. An African-American woman told me once that she did not think busing was a good idea because, before it was implemented, African-American kids could be mentored by an African-American doctor in their own neighborhood. But busing did away with that.
There does need to be a way to ensure that people in all neighborhoods can receive a quality education. And, sure enough, the chapter after school desegregation concerns fair housing and the integration of neighborhoods. Richard Nixon opposed, and then favored, a federal law for fair housing, and his administration legally fought housing discrimination while keeping that quiet so as not to alienate white suburbanites. (And, whereas George Bush disapproved of Nixon’s desegregation policies for schools, he voted for the Fair Housing Act.) But Nixon had qualms with the ideas of his Housing and Urban Development Secretary, George Romney (Mitt’s father), who sought to encourage low-income housing in white suburban areas. Nixon believed in fighting discrimination, but he had reservations about forcing the racial integration of communities. For Nixon, the best approach was to encourage black businesses.
I liked a story that Kotlowski tells on page 46: “When a group of southern segregationists, upset with the vice president’s [Nixon’s] support of desegregation and fair employment, planned to embarrass him by selling a black family a home in his Washington neighborhood, Nixon let his subordinates respond. ‘I would say he couldn’t care less,’ remarked Rose Mary Woods, his secretary, when she learned of the plot.”