Two Women Come Together to Oppose Busing

Plaintiff Crystal Meredith and Civil Rights Activist Mattie Jones Say Program Failed Their Children

By Jan Crawford-Greenburg and Howard Rosenberg

June 28, 2007 —

White, single mom Crystal Meredith and African-American matriarch Mattie Jones come from different worlds and opposite sides of Louisville, Ky., but both hailed today's 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Meredith v. Jefferson County Public Schools, which threw out the city's school assignment plan because it was based, in part, on a child's race.

Meredith is 34 years old, juggling graduate school, trying to launch a career as a "success coach" for corporate executives and manage child care for her 10-year-old son, Josh.

Mattie Jones, widowed after half a century of marriage, has raised nine children on the city's predominantly black West Side, and now watches over 31 grandchildren. A lifelong civil rights activist during the volatile decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s, she was arrested 28 times at marches, sit-ins and protests.

Today she serves as president of the city's Justice Resource Center, a storefront office run by her pastor that advocates for the poor and dispossessed.

Both women believe in the same thing: Their children should be able to get a good education at a neighborhood school and not have to ride buses crisscrossing the city to find equality in educational opportunity.

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Meredith's lawsuit sparked the case, and Jones took her side because she concluded the plan didn't work.

A Return to Segregation?

Civil rights leaders, including NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Ted Shaw, said the decision would undo decades of painful progress they've made toward ensuring equality in education and will mark a return to segregated schools.

Shaw has said a decision striking down the programs "will be a reversal of historic proportions" that could "send this country backward."

"It is very, very difficult for anyone to honestly imagine how we could address the issue of racial segregation of public schools without thinking consciously about race," Shaw said last December.

But Jones said her decades of experience with Louisville's school integration efforts have convinced her the solution is better schools in the neighborhoods.

"We don't have to sit next to a white person -- our kids don't -- to be educated," said Jones.

The case came about four years ago, when Meredith sued the school system after her son Josh, then a kindergartner, was denied a transfer to a school near her home.

Josh had been assigned to a school in Mattie Jones' neighborhood across town, and a transfer would have tilted the school's enrollment too heavily African-American, against the district's guidelines.

What's 'Best for My Child'

Meredith said she believed the racially and ethnically diverse Bloom Elementary School nearby was the best educational fit for Josh.

"This never had anything to do with race," Meredith said. "I was just wanting what was best for my child."

Jones and her husband, whose father had founded one of the first African-American boarding schools in Pineywoods, Miss., in the late 1800s, also believed that education was the way to a better life.

"I grew up in a segregated society," Jones said, "and I did not want my children to suffer like I had suffered."

But in Louisville and across America, equality in educational opportunity was still an unattained goal, despite the Court's landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed "separate but equal" schools.

For 20 years after that decision, many big city school systems made grudging, half-hearted efforts to equalize educational opportunity with a variety of methods. Some inner-city schools were renovated, although the decision also prompted wholesale "white flight" to the suburbs where new schools were built and students were enrolled in private, parochial schools.

'Forced Busing' Brings Taunts,Then Riots

In Louisville too, whites fled the city for affluent parts of the county to the east, while on the city's predominantly black West Side, the schools fell into disrepair, understaffed and underresourced, with children sharing tattered books and educators scrounging for scarce teaching tools.

Finally, in 1975, a federal judge ordered Jefferson County to integrate the city's public schools.

When children climbed onto buses on Sept. 8 that year and rode across town to different schools, Mattie Jones' daughters Taffey and Grace were among the first. It was a jarring experience.

"Believe it or not there were some children that had never seen a black child," Jones says, recalling how her girls were shocked by the reaction to their presence. "They could not understand why they were called the 'n-word' because they'd never heard it in their neighborhood schools."

Aside from the occasional taunts and noisy demonstrations, where opponents of busing honked their horns, shouted slogans and waved Confederate flags, the first two days of what whites called "forced busing" in Louisville were relatively quiet.

Then rioting broke out. White demonstrators, some called to the city by local leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, fire-bombed storefronts and clashed with police. The governor ordered state troopers and National Guard troops to ride the buses that carried African-American children.

Jones' daughter Taffey, then a 14-year-old, remembers that "when the bus pulled up, we pulled up to sticks, clubs, bricks and bottles."

There were mobs of angry, white demonstrators "yelling and shouting and physically rocking our bus" as it arrived at Doss High School, 6 miles to the east of her home, Taffey says. The demonstrators were "shouting things at us. The 'n-word,' obscenities and 'go back to Africa!'"

Racism and Hostility Linger

Though the demonstrators probably numbered only a few hundred at most, "as a little girl," Taffey recalled, "it seemed like thousands of people. And I'm so far away from home and it was the feeling that all of them were trying to get to me. It was an awful, awful experience that I'll never forget."

Jones' son Michael, whom she enrolled in Atherton High School on the East Side of Louisville -- where he was one of fewer than 20 black students five years before busing began -- said he too was met with open hostility.

The school's nickname was "the Rebels," and the Confederate flag adorned its football helmets until his senior year in 1973. One day, Michael recalls, all the white students "walked out of Atherton" and gathered in the parking lot, "using racial slurs and waving Confederate flags."

Michael's locker was routinely painted with racial epithets, and he endured regular assaults by white students.

Michael Jones, his sisters Taffey and Grace and the other six Jones children, stuck it out. Every one of them graduated. Taffey, Michael and his younger brother joined the military. Others went onto college and graduate school.

Both Taffey and Grace sent their own children off to Louisville's public schools -- by bus.

Busing 'Doomed to Fail'

Yet, after two generations of Jones' children had ridden buses to school as part of Louisville's efforts to integrate the city schools, Mattie Jones concluded, "we're in worse shape now than we were 20 years ago."

Her daughter Grace added, "Busing is sort of like the 'No Child Left Behind' policy. It was something that was doomed to fail because it was implemented to fail. And it did, miserably."

"Hispanics have failed in this system," she said. "Poor whites have failed in this system. It failed, but I think it primarily failed African- American and poor kids."

Louisville abandoned busing to achieve racial integration in its schools in 2001 in favor of a plan that tries to balance student enrollment of at least 15 percent, but no more than 50 percent African-Americans. Those guidelines applied primarily at the elementary school level and governed admissions to special programs, such as magnet schools.

Meredith says the system also failed her Josh. Though she praised the principal and Josh's teacher at Whitney Young Elementary School on Louisville's West Side, near Mattie Jones' home, Meredith said the daily commute was hard on her and interfered with the visitation schedule she had worked out with her ex-husband, Josh's father.

School Transfer Denied

She applied to transfer Josh to Bloom Elementary, not far from her home, but the county sent her a letter denying the switch.

Meredith explained, "It was only about two sentences long, and it said your transfer has been denied because of his race and then it stated the quota that they must have at the school."

The denial letter, obtained by ABC News, stated that "the transfer would have an adverse effect on desegregation compliance" of a school system policy requiring "each school must be within 15-50 percent range for its African-American enrollment." If Josh left the school, there would be too few white students enrolled.

When she visited her attorney, Ted Gordon, to discuss the visitation schedule, Meredith casually mentioned the difficulty of driving Josh back and forth across town each day.

"He said he could take care of the problem, and I assumed he could make a phone call and work it out," she recalled. Instead, he added Meredith's name to a federal lawsuit charging the county school system with discrimination. "The next thing I know, we are going to federal court. That was a surprise to me."

Milestone Ruling for Single Mother

In the first trial, and on appeal, the lawsuit failed, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case last December. Today in Meredith's case, and in a similar suit against the Seattle schools, the Court ruled against school assignment plans that use race as a factor.

There are Supreme Court decisions that are so important in U.S. jurisprudence and modern history that Americans know them by a single name: "Roe" in abortion rights; "Miranda" in criminal rights; "Brown" on the issue of school desegregation.

Now, in an ironic twist of fate, to that roll-call add the name "Meredith," an accidental agitator who only wanted to get her son enrolled in a school near her home.

Still, Mattie Jones believes the decision was right and hopes it will mean that the schools in her own West side neighborhood will get some of the money and resources they need.

"I used to sit on my porch to hear the laughter and the chatter" of the children as they went to the corner elementary school," she said.

But that building is now a fire station. As for the sounds of schoolchildren, she said, "all we hear now is the noise of the buses."