By Scott Carlson
A White House Press Release detailing the Nixon Adminstration’s policies on the subject of desegregation of America’s elementary and secondary schools.
Prior to President Nixon’s first term, the first great strides were made in the civil rights movement. Legislation passed removing some of the final obstacles that had hindered minorities for decades. Minorities, by law at least, had equal access to jobs, education, and voting. Though the law may have given these rights to minorities, the enforcement of these laws was sporadic and largely ignored in some areas.
Yet major civil rights issues continued, and de facto segregation of schools, mainly in the South was still an issue when Richard Nixon took office. In his memoirs, President Nixon described school desegregation and busing as “the most explosive civil rights issue” during his presidency. He said that the issue of inequality of education was tougher to deal with because the segregation wasn’t enforced by law; rather this segregation was a natural development of economic and social patterns. This type of segregation was a naturally occurring outgrowth from previous decades of de jure segregation that occurred throughout the nation. When the civil rights laws were passed outlawing de jure segregation, segregation continued to be perpetuated in a de facto form.
In October of 1969, the Supreme Court came to a decision that required all schools across the nation to fully desegregate by February of 1970. President Nixon described this ruling as “well-intentioned but both legally and socially counterproductive.” He agreed that something needed to be done about segregation, yet he understood that it would take a gradual process to achieve full integration of schools. He strongly opposed a singular, strong handed enforcement policy from the federal government or from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. President Nixon also opposed busing saying, “I do not believe that schoolchildren should be torn from their home environments and, solely because of their race, be forced to go to distant schools where they might not be welcome or even safe.”
President Nixon believed that the best strategy for full integration would be formulated at the local and state level through the individual school districts. He said that the right approach to the issue would be to persuade the leaders from the South to understand and accept the “wisdom and humanity” behind the law. With this approach, President Nixon organized a Cabinet Committee on Education which would focus on this issue and formulate a plan for persuasion. Over the next few months, President Nixon and his committee met with representatives from seven of the Southern states which were struggling to desegregate.
Regarding his plan of persuading states to promote desegregation, President Nixon said, “I knew that I was walking a fine line between the instant integrationists and the segregation-forever extremists, but I felt that the risk would be well worth it if we could solve the problem without getting the federal government involved.”
When the school year was set to open in 1970, President Nixon was concerned about whether they would open peacefully or whether violence would occur and federal intervention would be needed. To his relief, the schools opened across the South peacefully and were compliant with the order of the Supreme Court.
President Nixon’s strategy on desegregating the schools peacefully through persuasion was an effective policy. When he took office in 1969, 68% of Southern black children were attending all black schools. By the end of President Nixon’s administration in 1974, only 8% of Southern black children were attending all black schools.
The process was also achieved in a peaceful and effective manner, and ultimately initiated progress and confirmed justice by putting the greater good of the country ahead of partisan politics.