The Concerned Parents Association (CPA) was an anti-busing protest group within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Though CPA successfully mobilized public opinion, they failed to stop the court-ordered busing. Their influence was greatly reduced after they tried—and failed—to boycott Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools.
Busing became a major issue in Charlotte in 1969, when Judge James B. McMillan ruled that Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were not sufficiently integrated. Though the public schools were technically integrated, they were still racially imbalanced: 42% were either completely segregated or had fewer than six students of the opposite race. McMillan believed that this imbalance resulted from previous segregation. Biased housing codes had forced blacks into all-black neighborhoods, which, in turn, produced all-black schools. McMillan required the school board to bus students to correct this imbalance.
Many parents protested McMillan’s ruling. They did not want their children taken from local schools and bused to a new school miles away. CPA gathered these anti-busing forces into one loose-knit organization. It had neither a formal membership nor a well-defined leadership. Its members communicated through informal means—phone trees, fliers, and word-of-mouth. Unlike some organizations, CPA did not appeal to white racism. Instead, its members argued for “freedom of choice” in schooling. CPA even borrowed tactics from the Civil Rights Movement. At one school board meeting, CPA parents staged a sit-in and sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The CPA flexed its political muscle during the school board elections of May 1970. They targeted three incumbents: Betsey Kelley, Ben Huntley, and Coleman Kerry. CPA backed three anti-busing candidates: Tom Harris, William Booe, and Jane Scott. The election was a rout. Harris and Booe won outright, and Scott defeated Kerry in a runoff. The CPA candidates won wide margins in both the suburbs and rural areas.
Yet despite this victory, CPA could not prevent busing. Powerless to overrule Judge McMillan, the most they could do was appeal to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the start of the school year was approaching, and with it came the promise of busing. CPA urged parents to boycott the public schools in protest. The day before the schools opened, CPA held a 10,000-person rally at the fairgrounds north of the city. CPA member Tom Harris, speaking to the crowd at another CPA rally, declared, “We didn’t come this far to look at D-Day and turn chicken.”
The boycott started strong: one-fifth of students skipped their orientation. But it soon sputtered. By Friday, absenteeism had fallen to less than ten percent. CPA claimed that the boycott had a thirty percent success rate, but one participant admitted that “[the boycott] was totally unsuccessful.” Several reasons explain its failure. Some CPA leaders, including school board member William Booe, exposed themselves to charges of hypocrisy by enrolling their children in private schools. The boycott was fiercely opposed by the Charlotte Observer, the influential local newspaper. Finally, many parents were simply unwilling to take such a radical step as a boycott.
The boycott’s collapse marked the beginning of the end for CPA. A year later, in 1971, the Supreme Court upheld Judge McMillan in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Busing, the court said, was an acceptable way to achieve racial balance. The finality of the Supreme Court’s decision led many anti-busing activists to move on to new issues. As William Poe, chairman of the board of education, said, “We can’t do anything about it, so we might as well concentrate on the things we can do something about.” In the 1972 school board election, CPA’s anti-busing candidates were defeated by three pro-busing moderates. The CPA had gone from an insurgency to a powerhouse and back in only three years.
Baltimore Sun, November 8, 1970; May 27, 1972; Matthew D. Lassiter, “The Rise of the Suburban South: The ‘Silent Majority’ and the Politics of Education, 1945-1975,” PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, 1999; Lawrence J. McAndrews, “The Politics of Principle: Richard Nixon and School Desegregation,” Journal of Negro History, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Summer, 1998); New York Times, September 13, 1970; Time, March 9, 1970; Washington Post, November 19, 1972.