How Racists Out Nonviolent Protested The Civil Rights Movement

Siegrid Tuttle
4 min readJan 17, 2021
Irene Mccabe speaks at an anti-busing rally in Washington DC after walking there from Pontiac, Michigan. (

(This article was originally posted on a Sites at Penn State Website in 2019 and has been updated for Medium)

I wonder what protestors in 1954, impassioned by a Supreme Court decision that would unravel segregation in America, would find harder to believe; that in 65 years an African American women would be vice president, or that in 65 years schools in America would be becoming more segregated.

In the 1950s, busing began, but it didn’t pick up until the 1970s. The program was impressively successful at increasing racial diversity in schools and racial equity in educational outcomes. In 1968, before most major busing programs had started, 78 percent of minority students in the south went to schools that were almost exclusively attended by minority students, by 1988 only 24 percent did. In fact, schools in every part of the nation, except the northeast, became more integrated. During the same period, the 53 point gap in reading scores between white and black 17-year-olds (As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress) decreased from 53 points in the early 1970s to 20 points in 1988.

Unfortunately, busing was so successful that even white people who supported the Civil Rights Movement began to hate it. There is a big difference between supporting desegregating lunch counters and being forced to share suburban schools with poor African-American students. A big difference. Some southern cities shut down their school systems in response to busing orders. In others, African-American children had to fight through crowds of angry, hateful protestors to get to school each day. And the more racist and violent southerners became as they fought against busing, the easier it was for civil rights lawyers to argue that schools were segregated for racist reasons.

But the anti-busing movement, especially in the north, got smarter. They picked up a more centrist dialect. Instead of supporting segregated schools, they supported “community schools.” They were not anti-integration, they were just anti-busing. Soon, the overtly racist pro-segregation movement was able to garner support from parents who were just afraid of their kids going to worse schools. The anti-busing movement began copying the nonviolent protest tactics of the civil rights movement. In Pontiac, Michigan, women chained themselves to the gate of a school bus lot in protest of busing. Irene McCabe, a Pontiac housewife, led a 620 mile-long march to Washington DC. All of these protests seem quite dramatic for a movement which claimed its main arguments were “busing is inconvenient” and “kids should be kept as close to home as possible.”

The overdramatic protests worked. Many school districts lost the political will to integrate, and many northern schools never integrated at all. The gap in reading scores between white and black 17-year-olds increased to 26 points in 2012 and schools have become more segregated. Since 1988, the percent of schools which are over 90% minority has tripled.

Maybe more significantly, the Civil Rights movement lost the culture war. By the 2000s, integrating school was no longer a political flashpoint and most Americans had accepted the premise that busing failed and, as long as no obviously racist ordinances were involved, children could be given unequal educations. Meanwhile, cities that did successfully integrate schools experienced undeniable benefits. Wake County, North Carolina (Raleigh), for example, integrated in the 1990s and doubled the percentage of African-American students passing state-mandated tests.

Erie County School District is one of the many northern counties which never integrated its schools. It is undeniable that students in the city of Erie are given a worse education than students in the surrounding suburbs. We must do now what our parents and grandparents were too afraid to do. It is time to integrate Erie’s schools. All students deserve an equally high-quality education no matter their race, ethnic background, social class, or zip code. Putting kids from the same areas into the same schools segregates schools based on students’ family income just as efficiently as Jim Crow laws segregated society based on race. While Erie City School district is over 90% low income, Fairview is under 20% low income. Erie is only 40% white, while Fairview is over 90% white. Fairview has the best test scores in the county, while Erie has the worst test scores in the county. Schools like Fairview have become state-funded private schools that serve the wealthy.

There is no evidence integrating schools harms high-income students. There is however proof integrating schools boosts the graduation rates and test scores of low-income students while increasing the critical thinking skills of all students. But these are arguments that can be explored in later blog posts.

65 years ago the Supreme Court ruled a little girl named Linda Brown should be allowed to go to the nearby “whites only” school. The court also ruled separate could never be equal in education, mostly due to the negative effects on African-American students’ self-esteem. The court did not rule that all schools had to be integrated or that all students deserve an equal education. The court did not rule that every student in America deserves to be invested in. If we believe those things, if we believe every child deserves all the advantages and opportunities our nation can offer, we need to fight for it. And we need to fight knowing there are people like Irene Mccabe fighting against our ideals who are just as passionate.