A significant issue during President Richard Nixon’s Presidency was the use of public school busing to achieve racial integration. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Brown vs. the Board of Education that the policy of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. In parts of the United States, particularly the South, white kids and African-American kids went to separate schools, and there were arguments that the African-American schools were inferior and that the system of segregated schools itself was perpetuating low self-esteem among African-American children.
Years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, however, there were still a number of places where white kids and African-American kids went to separate schools. Brown vs. the Board of Education, if my understanding is correct, was addressing examples of legal segregation, in which there was a law placing white children and African-American children in separate schools. (Perhaps the Brown ruling was not just about legal segregation, but my understanding is that legal segregation was what the plaintiffs were challenging.) But racial segregation was not always something that existed because it was mandated by law. It was often due to where people lived. African-American children would go to an African-American school because they lived in an area that was predominantly African-American. And whites would go to a white school because their place of residence was in a predominantly white area. School busing was proposed as a solution to this kind of segregation. Essentially, children would be bussed to public schools in other areas, and the anticipated result would be that public schools would become more racially integrated.
President Nixon was critical of busing, but he said that he would enforce the court orders mandating it. This drew criticism from George Wallace, the Southern segregationist politician from Alabama, who ran against Nixon as an independent in the 1968 Presidential election, and whom Nixon feared would run again as an independent in 1972. Wallace accused Nixon of speaking against busing, while taking actions in favor of it. After Wallace won or did well in a series of Democratic primaries in his 1972 race for the Presidency, Nixon called on the Congress to prevent the courts from ordering new busing, as well as proposed $2.5 billion in federal aid to improve education for minorities in the central cities.
(UPDATE: On page 623, Ambrose says something that puzzles me. He says that Congress did not pass the moratorium on new busing that Nixon called for because “on his instruction the bill had been held up in committee”. Why would Nixon seek to obstruct a moratorium that he himself supported? Did he want the moratorium to fail so he could continue to exploit the busing issue? The thing is, Ambrose in the rest of the book seems to assume that Nixon sincerely opposed busing.)
I liked something that Stephen Ambrose said on page 520 of Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician:
“It is one of the innumerable ironies of American history that the original desegregation case, Brown v. Topeka (1954), was a decision against forced busing. The plaintiff, Brown, lived across the street from an all-white school in Topeka, but was forced to ride a bus halfway across town to attend an all-black school. The point of her suit was to allow her to attend her neighborhood school; the Warren Court used the case to rule that she had the right to do so, not because busing was wrong, but because segregation by race was a denial of the equal protection of the laws.”