The Boy on the Bus

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Every morning when I was in fifth grade, I walked a mile down the road to Stephen Foster Elementary, my neighborhood school. Then I got on a yellow school bus and rode across town. The Supreme Court had issued a desegregation order. It was 1970. Men had landed on the moon twice. Now white kids and black kids would go to the same schools.

The court order roiled Gainesville, Fla., and the rest of Alachua County. Private academies sprouted overnight to accommodate white families that bailed on the public schools. But most white folks hoped for the best, and their kids headed to what many of them had always considered the wrong side of the tracks.

The Supreme Court has recently revisited school integration, declaring, to gasps from many liberals and academics, that the government can't use race as a criterion for assigning students to schools. But 37 years ago, the government not only took race into account, it also assembled a fleet of buses and began hauling white kids and black kids back and forth across town like so much cargo.

It was, in retrospect, an ambitious social experiment. It was also clumsy, and at some level outrageous, reducing all of us to a single characteristic of white or black.

For me it was ultimately a good experience, a chance to

get outside the bubble of the white Southern Baptist neighborhood where my eccentric Unitarian, single-parent family had always lived. But I know that others experienced it differently. And I wonder to this day whether it was truly a major step toward a more egalitarian nation, or just a momentary spasm in a society that has remained essentially befuddled by race.

This much is certain: Those buses were slow, loud, crowded. You could feel every shift of gears. Railroad crossing: Gotta stop, yank open the bus door, make sure no train is coming. Day after day, we growled along 39th Avenue, due east, then turned south on Waldo Road, past a sun-blasted terrain of pine trees, gas stations, warehouses, radio towers, overgrown lots -- a chaotic jumble of stuff on the ragged boundary between the city and the scrub.

Eventually we reached our goal: Charles W. Duval Elementary School.

Here's something one 9-year-old couldn't have imagined in 1970: That four decades later, society would remain segregated in many respects, including public schools. That busing would be abandoned as a tool for achieving racial balance. That Duval would become nearly all-black again. That "integration" would become a dated word.

As the Rev. Thomas Wright, a pioneer in the struggle for school integration in Alachua County, told me last week,

"We wound up with a dual system all over again."

Hark back to 1970. The Vietnam War was dragging along, bleeding into Cambodia. Student protests shut down campuses. National Guardsmen gunned down four students at Kent State. Feminism found its voice. The environmental movement took off.

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