RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And it was this day in 1973 that the Supreme Court agreed to hear a landmark case in the fight over school desegregation. The case involved busing students between a largely African-American city, Detroit, and its white suburban areas.
As Michigan Radio's Sarah Alvarez reports, the ruling helped cement the quality gap between urban and suburban schools.
SARAH ALVAREZ, BYLINE: Let's go back about 40 years to the early 1970s in Detroit. White flight out of the city is in full swing and Detroit neighborhoods are racially segregated. Race relations are tense and Stevie Wonder releases a Motown record with this line...
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STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) You can't tell me nothing white man.
ALVAREZ: You can't tell me nothing white man. The same year, Ku Klux Klan members blew up 10 school buses in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac rather than let them be used to bus black and white students to integrate the schools.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And in Pontiac, Michigan, where 10 busses were dynamited last week ,tensions are growing by the hour...
ALVAREZ: There was considerable urgency to desegregate Detroit's schools. The school board redrew boundary lines so that schools would be racially and economically integrated. But the state legislature stepped in and killed the plan.
Detroit parent Ray Litt thought diversity was one of the best things about his old Detroit school and he wanted that for his kids. So Litt and a group of Detroiters went to court in an attempt to force the state to desegregate Detroit's schools.
RAY LITT: The original lawsuit was filed by NAACP. And my three kids, Daniel, Deborah and Sandy, were listed as plaintiffs.
ALVAREZ: That lawsuit became Milliken v. Bradley. It went to the Supreme Court after a federal judge agreed that Detroit's schools needed to be desegregated. He ordered kids from Detroit bused into the suburbs and vice versa. Detroit alone didn't have enough white students to make desegregation work.
LITT: There were people in the burbs that were fighting the idea because kids coming from Detroit, oh, to the suburbs oh, you know.
ALVAREZ: There were lots of people opposed to busing, many cited the upheaval it would cause for their children. The Supreme Court ended up striking down the busing plan 5-to-4, saying since the suburbs did not cause Detroit's problems, they did not have to be part of the solution.
Frank Kelley was Michigan's attorney general who argued against busing before the Supreme Court, and thinks the Court made the right call.
FRANK KELLEY: This case was 80 percent political. The other factor you want to remember, the discrimination that was found in Detroit by the judge had nothing to do with anything in modern times.
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ALVAREZ: Now, 40 later, Ray Litt is walking down the halls of the very school where his son went when the case started. Then it was Vandenberg Elementary. Now, it's a charter school. And, like almost every school in Detroit, nearly all the students are African-American.
LITT: Every time I hear about education and the need that we have to do things to make sure the young people get developed in a way that makes them able to be successful, happy, knowledgeable, the one word that's left out is desegregation.
ALVAREZ: Joyce Baugh teaches civil rights at Central Michigan University and has written extensively about Milliken v. Bradley.
JOYCE BAUGH: The Detroit public school system is in dire straits in large part because of that decision. And I don't think enough people realize the impact of that case, not just in Detroit but across the country.
ALVAREZ: Baugh thinks the Milliken decision incentivized people to move away from urban schools, to in effect outrun desegregation. And since Milliken, the Supreme Court has not been an especially friendly place for school desegregation efforts, even those without forced busing.
In the past few years, Kansas City, Louisville, Seattle, all have had desegregation plans struck down by the Supreme Court.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Alvarez
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