In 1972 in the nearly all-white suburbs of Detroit, opponents of bussing used sexual slurs to characterize the federal judge—Stephen Roth—who ordered suburban school districts to integrate with Detroit’s predominantly black schools. Bumper stickers of the 1972 election cycle appended to cars proclaimed, ‘Judge Roth is a child-molester,’ ‘Roth, Child-A-Buser’ and ‘Roth is a four-letter word.’ The implications of these slogans were clear: integrating schools through bussing placed children in sexual danger and the government was a sexual predator. Such rhetoric, moreover, spotlights how opposition to bussing was about preserving racial divisions. In the United States, these racial divisions have long been sexualized.
Bussing was the process of assigning and transporting students to schools in order to remedy longstanding racial and residential segregation. It also addressed suburban secession and “white flight,” which saw the movement of four million whites from cities to suburbs between 1960 and 1977. This flight and secession contributed to nearly all-white suburbs and predominantly black inner cities. As a wealthier white tax base fled to the suburbs, inner city schools became poorer and more segregated. When Federal district court judges began ordering bussing in the wake of the second Brown v. Board decision, these court orders spurred a widespread backlash, particularly among working-class whites whose children bore the brunt of the bussing burden. In turn, the national media gave extensive coverage to bussing and to the ambitious politicians who took up the anti-bussing cause.
Anti-bussing activism fell squarely within a tradition of using sexualized rhetoric to highlight the dangers of racial integration. In Florida, for example, avowed segregationists responded to bussing by opposing “race mixing” of any kind. These activists believed that the outcome of integration would be interracial marriage and mixed-race children. Take the poem, “The Gray Society,” for example, which asks its readers, “Will the time ever come when the pit of my soul / Won’t cringe in sheer agony/ As black and white inter-breed to produce / A ‘gray society?’”
Such sexually explicit language formed a continuum with more coded public anti-bussing rhetoric. A 1970 election advertisement for Governor Claude Kirk of Florida featured white women asserting the need to protect their daughters. The commercial appealed to white mothers who constituted a majority of the leadership and membership of major anti-bussing organizations.
Opponents of bussing recycled images used by White Citizens Councils in the wake of the 1954 conflict over integrating Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. For example, the image below depicts school-aged black and white girls being forced to kiss by National Guardsmen. The implication of the image is that the Federal Government is sexually assaulting the young.
It would be easy to dismiss these sexual and racial tropes as artifacts of Southern Massive Resistance. Such language, however, was national. As Ronald Formisano notes in Boston Against Busing, members of the South Boston Liberation Army distributed flyers to high school students stating,
We do not ask you to fight blacks, but we demand that white girls keep away from black students and aides. We seek revenge on anyone that violates this rule. Names of the guilty will be publicized. They and their families will be driven out of South Boston.
Not all opposition to bussing was expressed in sexual terms and many opponents of bussing stated that their opposition was not based on racist beliefs. They emphasized that their children were too young to travel such distances and that their education would be compromised if bussed to inner city schools. Many mothers who participated in the anti-bussing movement emphasized how their families had struggled to afford houses in neighborhoods with better schools. Bussing, they argued, undermined their financial sacrifices. Nevertheless, a sexual current ran through their activism, which deployed longstanding and sexualized images of predatory black men. And, sexual imagery became an important tool with which grassroots activists made meaning of policies addressing systemic racial inequalities.
Reactionary politicians across the country exploited white fears of bussing. Strategists in the administration of Republican President Richard Nixon realized that, “old political loyalties have been dissolved by the racial situation and that we have an unprecedented opportunity to garner votes in large blocks.” Nixon understood that for white working-class voters who traditionally supported the Democrats, bussing signified racial and sexual anarchy. In his re-election campaign Nixon determinedly used bussing as a wedge issue in hopes of appealing to Democrats and creating a conservative political majority. In campaign advertisements, Nixon repeatedly used racial codes such as “massive busing” while emphasizing that bussing harmed children by forcing them to travel unreasonable distances.
July 25th of this year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley, which allowed de facto segregation in public schools across the United States. The 1974 ruling overturned Federal District Judge Stephen Roth’s bussing plan, which placed students from urban and suburban districts in the same schools by bussing them across district lines. The Supreme Court declared that integration schemes could not extend beyond district boundaries and its ruling continues to shape American schools to this day. The sexualized implications of bussing likewise extended beyond Milliken. Many anti-bussing leaders went on to take leading roles in opposing gay rights, abortion and sex education in the 1970s. The fight against bussing, sexualized in and of itself, should therefore be reconsidered as part of the family values politics of the 1970s and thus understood as a significant chapter in the history of sexuality.
Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Gillian’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990. Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1
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