The Origins of “Antibusing” Politics: New York City Protests and Revision of the Civil Rights Act

By Matthew Delmont


"There is a pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
speaking to Urban League of New York City, 1960

"I do not blame the two distinguished Senators from New York, for they desire to protect New York City, as well as Chicago, Detroit, and similar areas… In my opinion the two Senators from New York are, at heart, pretty good segregationists; but the conditions in their State are different from the conditions in ours."
James O. Eastland
Mississippi Senator, 1964

On a snowy March day in 1964, over ten thousand white parents walked from the Board of Education Building in Brooklyn to city hall in Manhattan to protest against school desegregation in New York City. Carrying signs reading, “We oppose voluntary transfers,” “Keep our children in neighborhood schools,” “I will not put my children on a bus,” and “We will not be bused,” the marchers called their coalition of local organizations “Parents and Taxpayers.”

The white New Yorkers who protested against “busing” drew the attention of United States congressmen and were mentioned repeatedly in the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. ABC News, March 12, 1964.

The white New Yorkers who protested against “busing” drew the attention of United States congressmen and were mentioned repeatedly in the debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. ABC News, March 12, 1964.

They hoped to persuade the school board to abandon a school pairing plan that called for students to be transferred between predominantly black and Puerto Rican schools and white schools. “Most of the demonstrators were taking their case into the streets for the first time,” the New York Times reported, noting that more than seventy percent of the demonstrators were women.[1] “For every mother who’s here, there’s another one sitting at home with both her children, wishing she could be here,” said Joan Adabo a mother from Jackson Heights, Queens.[2]

While the protestors sought to influence policy at the city level, television news captured the scope of the march for a national audience. On NBC and ABC, rooftop camera shots showed a long line of protestors snaking through the wet streets of the city, while another camera angle depicted marchers, ten abreast, emerging from the fog as they crossed the Brooklyn bridge (figure 1). A street-level shot panned down to capture the marchers’ reflection in the curbside puddles, an artistic image that emphasized that the protestors braved inclement weather to be heard and seen. Television news, as well as newspaper coverage and photographs, gave the protestors national visibility. One mother spoke frankly to an NBC reporter about why Parents and Taxpayers opted for a public protest march: “we feel like we can prove as much as our opponents to use the same tactics. We have as much right as they do. These are our civil rights and we’re taking advantage of them.” (figure 2).[3]

White parents from Queens (NY) protest the proposed transfer of four hundred black and Puerto Rican students from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. This was a one-way “busing” plan that would not have transferred any white students. Associated Press photo, June 25, 1959.

White parents from Queens (NY) protest the proposed transfer of four hundred black and Puerto Rican students from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. This was a one-way “busing” plan that would not have transferred any white students. Associated Press photo, June 25, 1959.

The white protestors were borrowing tactics from the African-American and Puerto Rican protestors in New York who organized a school boycott a month earlier, which kept over four hundred and sixty thousand students out of school to demand that the school board create a plan for desegregation. This pro-desegregation boycott was, in 1964, the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the United States (bigger than the 1963 March on Washington), but the event is largely absent from histories of civil rights. The New York Times, which insisted that there was “no official segregation in the city,” criticized the boycott as “misguided.”[4] Given this climate, New York’s civil rights activists recognized that the white protestors, while many fewer in number, would command much more attention from politicians. Civil rights veteran Bayard Rustin, recruited by Reverend Milton Galamison to organize the pro-desegregation boycott, planned a second rally at City Hall in response to the white parents’ march and said “we will be successful if we can top the anti-integration people by one person…I’ll be happy with 15,000 and one Negroes, Puerto Ricans, and whites.”[5] Doris Innis, a member of Harlem’s Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), later reflected, “When 10,000 Queens white mothers showed up to picket city hall against integration, it was obvious we had to look for other solutions.”[6]

Black counter-protest of white "antibusing" mothers. Signs read “This Is N.Y.C. not Little Rock” and “Are These the ‘J.D.s’ [juvenile delinquents] That Glendale fears?” New York Times, June 26, 1959

Black counter-protest of white "antibusing" mothers. Signs read “This Is N.Y.C. not Little Rock” and “Are These the ‘J.D.s’ [juvenile delinquents] That Glendale fears?” New York Times, June 26, 1959

These civil rights activists understood that the white “antibusing” marchers conveyed a powerful message visually and rhetorically. By 1964, the public protest march was a tactic closely identified with African American civil rights demonstrators. This made the white protestors particularly newsworthy, because they offered television and print reporters a new angle on a familiar storyline. The newness of the white protest march also helped to emphasize the view that white citizens were entering the school fight for the first time, after being pushed too far by school board officials. In reality, school officials and politicians structured housing and school policies around the expectations of white citizens. What these white “antibusing” marchers were making public was their fear and frustration that this settled expectation would be disturbed.[7]

By calling themselves Parents and Taxpayers, these white protestors made an implicit claim that they occupied a higher level of citizenship than black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers who were also parents and taxpayers. Parents and Taxpayers advanced a similar argument to the hundreds of segregationists in the South and North who, in the years after the Brown decision, wrote to the Supreme Court to complain that the court was violating their rights as taxpayers.[8] The news media and politicians paid special attention to Parents and Taxpayers because they were white, while also affirming the group’s assertion that their resistance to “busing” for school desegregation was about their rights as parents, taxpayers, or homeowners, not about race. The simultaneous assertion and disavowal of white political power made it difficult for civil rights advocates to counter Parents and Taxpayers and similar “antibusing” groups.

Perhaps no one took more notice of the white “antibusing” march than the legislators who were debating the Civil Rights Act in the Spring of 1964, where several United States Senators mentioned the New York protest. Senator Absalom Robertson of Virginia read to his colleagues directly from the news ticker the day of the protest: “Nearly 15,000 parents opposed to planned busing of their children for public school integration descended on city hall today in the largest civil demonstration there in years.”[9] Later in March, Louisiana’s Russell Long said to Indiana’s Birch Bayh, “I presume the Senator noticed that on a cold, snowy day in New York City 15,000 white mothers got out and protested. I have heard that half a million whites have joined in a counter protest to the mobs marching and taking over. It could happen even in Indiana.”[10] Mississippi Strom Thurmond’s returned to this talking point in April, noting “In New York, where students were ‘bused’ around, such a howl went up that 15,000 people assembled in protest against the practice.”[11] “Fifteen thousand white mothers,” Georgia’s Richard Russell reiterated in June, “walked in the snow to protest any action to correct [racial] imbalance by the assignment of children to schools outside their residential areas” (figure 3).[12]

For Southern senators who opposed the Civil Rights Act, the white parents’ protests in New York against school desegregation highlighted what they saw as the hypocrisy of how the Civil Rights Act treated school segregation differently in different regions. In addition to New York’s standing as a cosmopolitan city and international media hub, Southern senators stressed the New York protests because U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler, who represented Brooklyn, played an important role in drafting the legislation and shepherding it through the House of Representatives. Celler, as the Southern senators repeatedly pointed out, oversaw the bill as one amendment stripped federal power to investigate and remedy “racially imbalanced” schools and another amendment drew a line between desegregation of schools in the South (“‘Desegregation’ means the assignment of students to public schools and within such schools without regard to their race, color, religion, or national origin”), and desegregation of so-called de facto segregated schools (“‘desegregation’ shall not mean the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.”) Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen and Montana Senator Mike Mansford successfully proposed another “antibusing” amendment to Title IV, section 401, “nothing herein shall empower any official or court of the United States to issue any order seeking to achieve a racial balance in any school by requiring the transportation of pupils or students from one school to another or one school district to another in order to achieve such racial balance, or otherwise enlarge the existing power of the court to insure compliance with constitutional standards.”[13]


Regarding this amendment, Mississippi’s James Eastland argued, “It appears that the draftsmen of the Dirksen-Mansfield substitute are so zealous to protect the States of New York, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, and California, where de facto segregation is now such an important factor in life, that they go so far as to deny the court itself the power to enlarge its existing decisions regarding the achievement of racial imbalance.”[14]

While they vehemently opposed the Civil Rights Act, these Southern politicians saw clearly that the legislation’s “racial imbalance” loophole would allow school segregation to exist and expand in northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit. For these Southern politicians, the “15,000 white mothers” were a symbol of how resistance to school desegregation was accorded more political respect than similar efforts in the South. Seeing the white parent protests against “busing” as a “white backlash” to civil rights, as the news media and scholars would later describe them, obscures the fact that these protests encouraged Northern Congressmen to exempt Northern schools from the Civil Rights Act’s desegregation provisions.

This chapter [of the author's new book, Why Busing Failed] examines how New York emerged as the focal point for the battle over “busing” for school desegregation in the late-1950s and early-1960s, how “busing” developed as shorthand way for politicians and parents to describe and oppose school desegregation in polite terms that distinguished them from the South, and how protests in New York shaped the wording on the Civil Rights Act. These early demonstrations against school desegregation in the North offer an example of how local protests worked their way into national debates and how, in turn, the resulting national policies shaped what kinds of changes were possible at the local level. These early “busing” protests and the resulting “antibusing” provision in the Civil Rights Act limited the federal authority and political will to uproot school segregation in the North, and encouraged local, state, and national politicians to take up “busing” as a way to oppose civil rights. At the same time, early “busing” protests emboldened Northern school boards to delay taking action to address school segregation. “15,000 white mothers” marched in New York a decade before Boston’s “busing crisis” garnered national attention, and these early “busing” protests help to explain both why Boston and other Northern cities were able to postpone desegregating until ordered to do so by a federal court, and why “busing” resonated so powerfully as a way to oppose school desegregation. Taking a long view of the “busing” battles makes clear the important role that anticipation and fear played in motivating opposition to “busing.” White parents in New York and elsewhere organized to stop “busing” even before school boards or courts ordered that buses be used for school desegregation and despite the fact that most cities had used buses to maintain segregated schools. News media coverage of “busing” protests and plans played an important role in fostering this anticipation and fear. Desegregation plans designed for a handful of schools in two neighborhoods could become citywide stories via newspapers or national stories via magazines or television broadcasts. Parents in Seattle, Pontiac, and Los Angeles, like the Senators in Washington D.C., watched and read about the “15,000 white mothers” protesting “busing” in New York and this news contributed to existing local fears that “busing” might soon come to their cities. The white parents who took to the streets to protest school desegregation on a wet and cold day in March 1964 walked less than three miles but their protest rippled across the country and their opinions shaped civil rights for years to come.

Matthew Delmont is Professor of History at Arizona State University. This post is excerpted from his new book, Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation (University of California Press, 2016).

[1] Fred Powledge, “More Than 10,000 March in Protest on School Pairing,” New York Times, March 14, 1964.

[2] “15,000 Demonstrate at N.Y. City Hall: Parents Protest School ‘Pairing’ Plan,” The Stars and Stripes, March 14, 1964.

[3] Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC, March 12, 1964, NBC Universal Archives.

[4] Benjamin Fine, “Northern Cities Confront the Problem of De Facto,” New York Times, February 10, 1957; “The School Boycott,” New York Times, February 2, 1964.

[5] Martin Arnold, “Rights Rally at City Today Sets ’15,000 and One’ as Goal,” New York Times, May 18, 1964.

[6] Quoted in Tomas Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (New York: Random House, 2008), 467.

[7] Legal scholar Cheryl Harris describes these settled expectations as one way that whiteness functions as property is United States law and culture: “Because the law recognized and protected expectations grounded in white privilege (albeit not explicitly in all instances), these expectations became tantamount to property that could not permissibly be intruded upon without consent.” Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review, vol. 106 (June, 1993), p. 1731.

[8] In her study of the relationship of taxpayer rights language and education, historian Camille Walsh writes, “The use of taxation and ‘taxpayer rights’ as a principle to uphold segregation was implicitly premised on the idea…that African Americans much proportionally pay less in taxes, and therefor were not entitled to the same benefits as whites…A sense of paternalism toward African Americans was often connected to the belief among whites that the public tax funds really belonged to whites to distribute. Whites repeatedly asserted that they paid ‘more’ taxes than blacks and therefore had the right to be heard by courts and legislatures. This sense of ‘buying’ services from the government through tax payments was connected to an idea that African Americans were ‘lesser’ taxpayers and therefore ‘lesser’ citizens.” Camille Walsh, “Guardians of Inequality: Class, Race and the Struggle Over Education in U.S. Courts, 1899-1974,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 2010), 176-77.

[9] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., March 12, p. 5081.

[10] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., March 24, p. 6084.

[11] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., April 10, p. 7563.

[12] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., June 2, p. 12440.

[13] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., June 17, p. 14220.

[14] Congressional Record, 88 Cong., 2 sess., June 17, p. 14229.