Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

Written By North Carolina History Project

Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 20, 1971, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education dealt with the desegregation plan adopted by Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Chief Justice Warren Burger rendered the opinion of the court, and its decision was unanimous. The product of several years of NAACP litigation, the Swann decision lent the imprimatur of the Court to busing as a solution to inadequately desegregated public schools.  

When Swann was argued before the Supreme Court, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system was one of the largest and most diverse in the United States.  The system included schools in downtown Charlotte and in smaller suburban communities.  In 1965, the system began implementing a federal court-approved desegregation plan that stipulated geographic zoning while permitting voluntary student transfers. The plan proved ineffectual. During the 1968-1969 school year, the school system’s student population numbered approximately 84,000, a figure that included 24,000 African-American students.  Of those 24,000, 14,000 attended schools in which student bodies were at least 99 percent African American.

After the NAACP took the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to court for its failure to desegregate in 1968, the board drafted a new desegregation plan. The new plan relied principally on school zone gerrymandering to desegregate but left large numbers of African American students in all-black or nearly all-black schools. Consequently, a federal district court enlisted an expert, Dr. John Finger, to produce an alternative desegregation plan. Finger’s plan called for the busing of African American elementary school students in Charlotte to suburban schools. It also recommended that fifth- and sixth-grade students from suburban Mecklenburg County be bused to schools in Charlotte.

Although the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board adopted the Finger plan, it asserted that the plan was unreasonable. A federal court of appeals upheld the district court’s ruling, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in late 1970. The decision took several months.  Chief Justice Burger’s colleagues had myriad objections and recommendations for the opinion. The finished opinion discussed various subjects, including school zoning and racial quotas. 

The most controversial topic in the opinion was busing.  In his opinion, Burger stated that busing was a suitable “remedial technique” for achieving desegregation. White students in suburban Mecklenburg County had protested the very possibility that they be bused into Charlotte to attend school. Burger’s ruling increased tensions.  During the era of segregation, southern states had used busing to transport African American students distances of 50 miles or more to attend black schools, so some believed that the Supreme Court was meting out retribution for segregation on southern white students.

Although unpopular among southern whites, the Swann decision profoundly affected the school systems of many major U.S. cities. In 2002, the decision was abrogated. The plaintiffs in Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education charged that the school system had become desegregated and that remedial techniques, such as busing and racial quotas, had thus been rendered unnecessary.  A federal court of appeals agreed with the plaintiffs.  When the ruling was challenged, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and thereby upheld the lower court’s ruling.