Next week marks the 40th anniversary of the day the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about busing and segregation in Detroit’s schools. The case eventually became Milliken v. Bradley, a seminal civil rights case that nevertheless few people outside legal circles remember.
Mark Litt is now in his late forties, but was a fourth grader at Vanderberg Elementary when his father signed him up as one of the plaintiffs in a NAACP legal challenge to racial segregation in Detroit's schools. Litt said he hasn't thought about the case in many years and that very few people know about his place in Detroit's history or even the case itself. "I think a lot of people aren't aware of it," he says.
In the mid 1970's, the case was on people's minds and in the news, and busing took the lion's share of attention. But Ray Litt, a longtime community activist and Mark's father, says the case was about segregation. When busing became the judge-ordered remedy, it was only because the state had scuttled earlier attempts at integrating Detroit's schools.
"When the Detroit public school system tried to change their boundaries so there would be integration, the state stopped that," he said.
In 1971, hot on the heels of a busing controversy in Pontiac, the Michigan state legislature did in fact pass a state law that prohibited a Detroit school board plan to redraw school boundary lines within the city to integrate the schools. Opposition to that plan from some Detroit residents of both races caused it to become heavily politicized and the state stepped in. Even Coleman Young voted for the integration plan to be struck down, and convinced all but one black legislator, Nelis Saunders to vote with him.
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Joyce Baugh has written one of the few books on Milliken v. Bradley. Her research found Young was convinced the courts would overturn the part of the act that left Detroit's schools segregated. And not long after the law was passed the NAACP did in fact file suit. At that point, the question of how to fix a segregated system in Detroit was up to the courts.
The Supreme Court eventually struck down a judge ordered plan to bus students to the suburbs from Detroit, and vice versa, in order to integrate the schools. It was the begining of the end for court ordered busing.
In 1975 a Detroit only busing plan was put into effect. Racial demographics in the city made it impossible for that plan to successfully integrate the schools. Baugh says although Detroit schools were already over 70% black, the busing decision pushed many white and some black families out of the city or into private schools.
"Milliken is sort of a missed opportunity," Baugh says. "There's got to be some kind of way to rethink the whole system."
That longstanding search for answers underscores the relevance of this decades old case. In the 40 years since Milliken v. Bradley schools in Detroit are poorer performing and less diverse. Vanderburg Elementary, where Mark Litt went to school when the case started, still stands and we were able to meet there to talk about the case. But it is now a charter school for high school students, too new to have academic performance data available. And, it is almost all black. There are many parents, community members and education reformers who want to change education in Detroit, but there are no more ideas of how that could be accomplished.
This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Visit our website dedicated to the first-hand accounts and news reports from this highly divisive, but critical moment in Detroit Public School history.