Divided we stood

"Divided we stood" Continued...

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

The effect of busing was to turn whites and blacks who'd never thought of themselves as militants into militant activists. Turnage, interviewed at Virginia Commonwealth University two decades later, said she participated in Black Panther demonstrations for the first time that year and joined the NAACP: "I was all for black power because I thought we were being lost, and we were losing a whole lot of ground in terms of rights, in terms of treatment."

My parents joined Citizens for Neighborhood Schools and made repeated trips with thousands of others to Washington to lobby lawmakers to end court-ordered busing. "It was not the blacks we were protesting," my mother recalls today. "It was the judges and politicians who were going to take you so far from home. We weren't looking to avoid blacks; we were looking to give you the best education we thought we could." In the end, that meant sending me to a private school, as busing and school redistricting continued to be argued through the courts. A federal appeals court overturned Judge Merhige's busing plan and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. The court divided 4-4, with Justice Powell of Richmond abstaining: The lower court ruling stood.

Legal experts regarded the case as a victory for small-government conservatives. Others considered it a win for segregationists. What my family learned is that racial battles at ground level did not resemble the evening news clips. More importantly, that real integration would require not simply thinking non-racist thoughts but acts of sacrifice to our own peace and comfort.

The battle over busing in Richmond left the city as racially divided as it was before. Blacks lost ground while I and my middle-class white friends, sadly, opted out. The solutions we know work (community-based and hopefully faith-based racial reconciliation) were lost among court-ordered formulas.

After Merhige's 2005 death, Kilpatrick's old paper eulogized his times this way: "However well-intended to right a grievous wrong, and whatever its momentary justification in law despite its lack of standing in the realm of right reason, compulsory busing succeeded nowhere. In the Richmond area it set back regional unification, possibly the only prudent solution to the many divisions within the greater community, to an extent perhaps unrecoverable."


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