Growing up White in Atlanta
In 1953, I started kindergarten in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1954, we moved to a nice little neighborhood in Northwest Atlanta. We lived within 1 mile of the neighborhood school and all the kids on our street walked to school together, big kids watching the little ones. We never thought about whether or not we were safe. We were just kids and this was what we did. We didn’t even realize we were all White kids, this was just our world.
In 1958, our world changed. I was 10 when the house 2 doors down was sold to a White owned real estate company and rented to a Black family. That company was all set with cash to buy up all the houses in the neighborhood that they knew would immediately come on the market at below market prices. We moved back to rural Georgia within a month. I have no idea how much money my parents lost, but I know they would have lost everything they had rather than let me go to a desegregated school.
To put this in historical context, 1958 was the year the Jewish Reform Temple in Atlanta on Peachtree Street was bombed. You may remember that from Driving Ms. Daisy. This was 4 years after Brown v. Board of Education and whispered conversations between parents contained phrases like “states’ rights” and for some of us, “lynching” and “castration.” This was not just slow walking desegregation; this was armed insurrection and terrorism.
I tell you this little story to try to convey the depth of the feeling most White folks had in 1958 that desegregation was anathema to all their beliefs. Nothing was too much to sacrifice to prevent desegregation, to protect their babies from the horror of race mixing.
The Rural South System
I began 6th grade in a rural Georgia school and for the first time in my life I rode a school bus. This was not “busing,” this was just our school bus, a vehicle to transport little White kids to a place safe from Brown v Board of Education. I went to the same school my mother had attended. Nothing had ever changed here and the adults believed nothing ever would. They were willing to ensure that by any means necessary and make no mistake, every household had multiple guns they were willing to use to that end.
My county had about a dozen elementary schools and each school had a couple of buses that delivered us right to the door of our school. The high school kids stayed on the bus and were delivered to another bus that continued their journey on to our one county high school. This all took a couple hours every morning and every afternoon for the older kids, a little less for the younger ones. This was the system for White kids.
There was another busing system operating concurrently for the Black kids in the county, but it was never mentioned and so invisible that I didn’t notice it until I started high school in 1962.
To get to the County High School, our bus delivered us to a central location where another bus waited for all the high school kids from the South end of the county to converge to continue the journey. As I waited on that bus every morning, there was another bus that passed by, filled to overflowing with Black kids. I don’t remember seeing another Black kid since we had moved there. I had seen Black kids in Atlanta. My father had driven a bus for Atlanta Transit, the system that later became Marta. In fact, my first lesson in segregation came from a ride with my Dad on his bus when I was taught that it was disrespectful for me, a child, to sit toward the back of the bus because that meant the Black riders had to stand up and couldn’t sit in front of me. I was about 7, I asked why, but never got an answer. For context, Birmingham bus boycott – 1955.
It took time and a lot of questions to learn why there was another bus, one I had never known about, passing us every morning. The separate bus system was just for Black kids. There was a school I had never seen and never heard of. It was the Black school, but you know that was not the descriptive word used at that time. All the Black kids in my county went to this one school, first graders through seniors in high school, all together in what I later learned was an over-crowded, poorly maintained building, furnished with our discarded desks, books and equipment.
This was busing, masquerading as “separate but equal.” Historical context: 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963.
De Facto Desegregation
In 1964, the first Black students entered my high school. There were no major incidents that I remember, but that doesn’t mean there were none. I remember one young lady’s name, although I won’t reveal it here. That is her story to tell in her way. Historical context: Brown ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed” in 1954. Historical context: It would be another 8 years until Kamala Harris began her bus trips to a White school in Berkeley, California.
This is my story of busing. It is a Southern story. My part of this story ends around 1964 when my school was desegregated with no violence that I am aware of, unless you count hateful, hurtful comments to a couple of perfectly nice girls who didn’t deserve that treatment, and to be sure, there was a lot of violence in our communities that was never reported and was many times deadly. The history of lynchings, castrations, burnings, is recorded and well known and cannot be separated from the history of desegregation but my story here has a narrow focus: busing.
But the history and story of busing is not really a Southern story. It is an American story, and most of the violent reaction to busing was not in the South. Consider Boston from 1974 to 1988. It took a court order to force Boston to desegregate its public school system; busing was the tool, and violent protests were the result. The history of court ordered busing outside the South is long, broad and distasteful and I don’t have enough space here to fully tell it.
I tell this story, of course, in response to the exchange between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden at Thursday’s debate. My very soul recoiled at Biden’s response to Harris. This old White woman felt a bond to the young Black child that Kamala Harris had been, but my feelings of disgust were a reaction to Biden’s dishonest response, and it was dishonest – not untrue – dishonest.
Don’t Do This To Us, Joe
Of course Biden had opposed court ordered busing. That was no great revelation and it was an irrelevant distinction from busing in general. In 1977, Biden introduced legislation to ban court ordered busing and in a very chummy letter to Senator James O. Eastland, he thanked Eastland for supporting that bill. Court ordered busing was for the purpose of enforcing Brown vs. Education in areas that were resisting dismantling structural, systemic segregation in school districts. The fact that he singled out Department of Education busing was a specious argument then and now. In fact, he called court ordered busing “an asinine concept.” The “local control” argument was a thinly veiled reference to states’ rights then and now.
I am angry at Uncle Joe in a way that one can only be angry with a family member. I want to say to him, “Don’t do this to us, Joe. We want to support all the candidates. We want to pledge to vote for the one who makes it through this primary process. We don’t want to do anything that will make anyone stay home on election day. We need you to be better than this. We need you to own your history – our collective history – and condemn it. We need you to show us that you have gained more than age in the intervening years, but also wisdom.”
In the end, I don’t think people will condemn Biden, or any of us, for our part in our sordid, collective racial history, but they will and should condemn those of us who deny and justify it now.
Don’t do this to us, Joe.