Milliken v. Bradley: The Michigan court case at the heart of the national Dem debate over busing

Sen. Kamala Harris (R) (D-CA) and former Vice President Joe Biden (L) speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) looks on during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Determined and deliberate, Linda Moragne in 1971 enrolled at Detroit Cody High, an overwhelmingly white school on the city’s far westside. The 14-year-old African American had rejected an opportunity to attend Mackenzie High, the major Black school in her neighborhood.

Linda Moragne’s Cody High School class yearbook | Ken Coleman

“I wanted to get a better education,” she told the Advance on Tuesday about those socially and politically turbulent days.

Moragne’s effort was bold. The previous summer, four liberal Detroit Board of Education members — two Black and two white — were recalled by local voters. 

Their political offense? They had the audacity to approve student enrollment boundaries that would send African-American students to several high schools that were virtually all white.  

Moragne continually faced badgering and insults from white students throughout her three years at Cody. So much so that you would have thought the N-word was her middle name.

“I was greeted with, ‘Nigger go home’ on my locker,” she recalled. “That was my experience.” 

Detroit Skyline and Belle Isle, early 1970s | Jamie photo, Flickr

Detroit, of course, played a central role in national policy with Milliken v. Bradley, the landmark case involving the NAACP, Detroit Public Schools and state of Michigan. On July 25, 1974, U.S. Supreme Court in a narrow 5-4 decision, ruled against cross-district busing.

Fast forward 48 years: Moragne is a University of Michigan graduate and senior account executive at the Michigan Chronicle newspaper in Detroit. 

She believes that confronting racial discrimination in America is important and should be addressed by U.S. presidential candidates. And it was at the first presidential debate last month in Miami, during a heated exchange between former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calf.).

But she also believes that Biden, who served during the historic Barack Obama presidency, should not necessarily be attacked for his 1973 public stance on school busing when he served as the junior U.S. senator from Delaware.

Linda Moragne | Ken Coleman

“Let’s talk about now and how we feel now,” said Moragne. “[Biden (who is white)] was vice president under a Black president and I think that he learned a lot about being Black.”

At the June 27 debate, Harris, who is African American, unleashed some powerful, personal criticism of Biden for his record on school busing and working with segregationist senators on issues.

“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” she said. “But I also believe — and it’s personal. And … it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. 

“And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day and that little girl was me.”

 

Biden was clearly taken aback by Harris’ criticism and has said so in subsequent interviews. At the debate, he defended himself and appeared to take aim at Harris’ status as a former prosecutor.

“That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” he said. “I did not praise racists. That is not true, No. 1. No. 2, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender when … my city was in flames because of … the assassination of Dr. [Martin Luther] King, No. 1. 

“Now, No. 2, as … the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who in fact, we worked very hard to see to it we dealt with these issues in a major, major way. The fact is that in terms of busing … you would’ve been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your City Council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should not be — we should be breaking down these lines.”

Harris then asked: “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America, then?”

Biden said no.

 

He served as a U.S. senator from 1973 to 2009 when he became vice president. On July 6, almost two weeks after the presidential debate, he offered an apology.

“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said. “And I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception they may have caused anybody.”

Biden, however, did not rebuke his past opposition to federally mandated school busing to achieve desegregation. He also accused Democrats and Republicans of trying to “weaponize my record and use it against me.”

Harris has since said she doesn’t believe busing should be mandated, but be in the “toolbox of what is available and what can be used for the goal of desegregating America’s schools.”

Yang, Ryan, Klobuchar mention Michigan in 1st Dem presidential debates

It’s since been reported that another Democratic presidential candidate weighed in on school busing more than 40 years ago. In her first law review article, published in 1975 in the Rutgers Law Review, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), criticized the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Milliken v. Bradley

Warren argued that the High Court ruling against cross-district busing it made it easier for school districts to stop busing students in northern cities.

“It has been Black parents, children, and organizations committed to desegregation who have shouldered the major part of the burden. … Clearly, the burden for enforcing the Brown [v. Board of Education] right has been misplaced,” Warren wrote at the time.

Warren added in the article that the Milliken ruling, coupled with another decision that upheld the state system of financing public schools by local taxes, “will lead to central-city schools which are inferior in facilities, student-teacher ratios, and other educational advantages because the funding is not commensurate with that available for suburban schools.”

Warren stumps for new ‘economic patriotism’ plan in Detroit, Lansing

Milliken v. Bradley: The history

On August 18, 1970, the NAACP filed suit against Michigan state officials, including then-Gov. William Milliken, on behalf of Ronald Bradley, a second-grade Black student at Detroit’s Clinton Elementary. 

William Milliken

The NAACP argued that although schools were not officially segregated, the city of Detroit and the state as represented by its surrounding counties had enacted policies to increase racial segregation in schools. Only 30 white students were enrolled at Clinton Elementary. However, its student body totaled 1,800, according to a 1972 Detroit Free Press feature.

Ronald’s mother, Virda Bradley, told the Detroit Free Press in 1972: “If you don’t get it in school, you don’t get it at all. I want to see the schools better.”

Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon took to the airwaves on March 16, 1972, and stated: “I am opposed to busing for the purpose of achieving racial balance in our schools. I have spoken out against busing scores of times over many years. And I believe most Americans — white and Black — share that view.”

He furthermore called on Congress to adopt “reasonable national standards for school desegregation” that would use busing as a last resort while “protecting the right of a community to maintain neighborhood schools.” 

Richard Nixon

That same year, U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Roth, a former state attorney general and President John F. Kennedy administration federal court appointment, ruled that the state of Michigan, as well as 53 metro Detroit school districts, were accountable for segregation. 

It was unpopular in many suburban communities and a bumper sticker was printed that read: “Roth is a four‐letter word.” The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court later affirmed some of the Roth decision and specified that it was the state’s responsibility to integrate across the segregated metropolitan area.

However, the result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Milliken v. Bradley was that court-ordered busing was to be carried out in Detroit only and did not involve suburban students who resided in Macomb County, Oakland County and other portions of Wayne County.

Like thousands of Detroit Public Schools students in the 1960s, John Arnold, who is African American, was bused five miles to Southwestern High, which had a majority white student population in 1969. He remembered stepping off the bus and seeing a fight involving Black and white students.

John Arnold, 1969 | John Arnold photo

“Aw, man,” Arnold, a former Howard University communications professor, recalled thinking to himself. “It’s gonna be a long three years.”*

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision, then-Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young publicly disagreed with the NAACP on busing. Young argued that the effort would lead to more segregation in the region.  

“I shed no big tears for cross-district busing,” Young declared in 1975. I don’t think that was ever the basic issue, which is the problem of equal educational opportunities …”

The same year, Young called NAACP lawyers from Baltimore, where the civil rights organization’s headquarters is located, and New York City “carpetbaggers.” Roy Wilkins, NAACP executive director, responded that Young’s comment was “inflammatory” and like those made “by the worst Southern racists.” 

Biden fallout? Depends on who you ask

Lloyd Crews, a political science professor at Oakland Community College and president of the Southfield City Council, believes the busing issue won’t dominate the 2020 presidential campaign. 

“At this time, it’s kind of a moot issue,” he said. “Kamala caught him with a left hook when he didn’t have his guard up. I don’t think that he saw that coming. “That being said, I think it’s just a moment where she scored some points and it got her a little more visibility. I don’t that it will take away from his candidacy.” 

Harris shakes off ‘electability’ argument during Detroit NAACP address

However, Llenda Jackson-Leslie, a former Detroit political consultant now living in Washington, D.C., said that Biden’s position on school busing 45 years ago should be open for scrutiny, as well as his delayed apology.

“It’s relative if [Biden] can’t demonstrate that he has moved passed it,” Jackson-Leslie said. “It was a very simple equation during that time for Black voters and their allies: If you are opposed to busing, you are opposed to us. White opposition to busing was pretty much based on racial bias.”

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to the Alice B. Toklas Club in San Francisco for Pride, June 30, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Additionally, Jackson-Leslie, who is African American, does not believe that Biden’s apology was satisfactory.  

“[Biden] has not dealt with himself,” she declared. “He can’t acknowledge that we live in a racist country and that his attitudes and opinions have been influenced by that.” 

Biden is scheduled to visit  Detroit at least twice this month, first with an event on July 24. He, Warren, Harris and the slew of other presidential contenders are also slated to be at the next round of Democratic National Committee debates on July 30 and July 31. 

Biden to campaign in Detroit this month

Meanwhile, Linda Moragne has a wait-and-see posture toward Biden. She believes that serving in the U.S. Senate for decades and as then as President Barack Obama’s No. 2 for eight years may have caused him to evolve when it comes to issues of race.

“I think that he’s seen some things that he may not have seen before,” Moragne concluded.

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

* This story has been corrected to reflect John Arnold’s job status.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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