President Richard Nixon made his most important statement on busing in a televised Presidential address in March 1972, shortly after Florida’s Democratic presidential primary in which the busing issue propelled George Wallace to a landslide victory and 74 percent of Floridians signalled their opposition to busing in a ballot straw poll. Nixon called on Congress to pass a moratorium on new busing orders and pass new legislation that would 'establish reasonable national standards' rather than the 'unequal treatment of among regions, states and local school districts' ordered by the courts. While the compromise bill Congress eventually passed was weaker than Nixon’s proposal, White House advisor John Erlichman later described the televised speech as a political victory: 'Whether Congress passed the busing moratorium was not as important as that the American people understood that Richard Nixon opposed busing as much as they did.' Nixon’s televised speech prompted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund to publish It’s Not the Distance, 'It’s the Niggers', a report which fact-checked Nixon’s claims about busing. The speech also intensified tensions between the White House and the civil rights lawyers in the Justice Department who worked on school desegregation cases, seven of whom resigned in protest. In a letter published in the Washington Post, one of the lawyers wrote, 'As I sit here watching President Nixon make his statement on school busing I am sickened. Sickened because it is the job of the President to unite and lead the nation to the future, not buckle under the weight of political pressure and retreat to a dark and miserable past.'
Nixon’s administration only announced two days earlier that the speech would be a televised address and did not release the customary advanced copy of the speech to the media. All of the networks carried the address, but with limited time for commentators to analyse the text of the speech, Nixon was able to present his views on busing with almost no critical commentary. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey called the speech a 'TV commercial' for antibusing views, and Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, criticized Nixon for using his televised address to speak 'as a committed advocate of one side of a major national controversy' and wrote to ABC, CBS and NBC to request equal time to reply. As Nixon’s critics understood, the president was in a unique position to shape the debate over busing and through television he used this power to normalize resistance to federal court school desegregation orders.
By the time Nixon delivered this speech in 1972 March, busing for school desegregation had emerged as one of the nation’s most controversial political issues. In the mid-1960s, city-level voluntary busing programmes in started in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities. While these programmes addressed only a fraction of the school segregation in these cities, they sparked protests among white parents defending what they called 'neighbourhood schools'. After the US Supreme Court called for states to take proactive steps to integrate schools in Green v. County School Board (1968), federal judge James McMillan’s ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1969) called for comprehensive desegregation which would require busing. The US Supreme Court upheld Swann in 1971, with Chief Justice Warren Burger writing that busing was an acceptable 'remedial technique' to achieve comprehensive desegregation. Before the end of the year, there were more than 40 lower court decisions made in line with Swann. Outside of the South, judges found evidence of unconstitutional school segregation in cities like Denver, Pasadena and Pontiac and ordered school boards to implement plans to integrate their schools by changing attendance zones, altering school siting policies and, most commonly, by transporting students by school buses. While court-ordered busing for school desegregation never affected more than 10 per cent of public school students, politicians and parents railed continuously against 'busing,' arguing that the rights of parents and homeowners were being violated by activist judges and federal bureaucrats.
Focusing on Florida Governor Claude Kirk and Pontiac housewife activist Irene McCabe, this essay examines how busing opponents turned the conventions of television news – its emphasis on newsworthy events and crisis; its selective use of historical context; and its nominal political neutrality – to their advantage, staging television-friendly protests that positioned mothers and children as victims of activist judges and federal bureaucrats, and framed their support for segregated neighbourhoods and schools in the colour-blind rhetoric of homeowners’ rights. For politicians who aspired to the national stage, like Florida Governor Claude Kirk, busing offered a recognizable issue on which to take a stand. When Kirk protested court-ordered busing by suspending a local school board in Manatee County (Bradenton, Florida) and appointing himself school superintendent, he was not only appealing to Florida voters but also to television viewers in cities like Nashville, St Louis and Seattle, many of whom wrote to convey their support. When Vice President Spiro Agnew complained that television network news 'can elevate men from obscurity to national prominence within a week' he was referring to Black Power author and activist Stokely Carmichael, but television news also propelled grassroots anti-busing activists like Irene McCabe to national prominence. McCabe, who staged a widely covered six-week march from Pontiac to Washington DC to protest busing, made frequent television appearances because networks deemed her newsworthy, not necessarily because newscasters agreed with her politics. Repeated television coverage turned relatively minor busing battles in Bradenton and Pontiac into national news and established Kirk and McCabe as icons of busing opposition in the early 1970s.
The fact that television news took up 'forced busing', 'massive busing', and 'neighbourhood schools' as politically neutral descriptions vexed supporters of integration to no end. Pontiac mother Carole Sweeney put it bluntly in her testimony to the Senate committee on equal educational opportunity, 'Busing is a red herring, a euphemism. My white friends at the bus depot on the first day of school were not called bus lovers. They were called nigger lovers.' Claude Kirk, Irene McCabe and other politicians and parents who opposed school desegregation used television successfully because they made the story about busing rather than race. Anti-busing arguments were particularly persuasive on television news because they voiced demands for neighbourhood schools that circulated with little discussion of how these neighbourhoods and schools became segregated. Without reference to housing covenants, federal mortgage redlining, white homeowners associations or discriminatory practices by the real estate industry, neighbourhood segregation appeared to be an innocent matter of personal choice. Viewing school segregation as the natural result of private housing decisions required judges, politicians and parents to adopt what George Lipsitz calls an 'epistemology of ignorance' dependent on the distortion, erasure and occlusion of the clear and consistent evidence of racially discriminatory policies in education. Television news contributed to this 'epistemology of ignorance' through regular coverage of anti-busing protests without the historical or legal context for the busing orders. Without this historical context, anti-busing activists and politicians could convincingly present busing as an unnecessary and unjust display of federal power. Busing, in this view, seemingly came from nowhere. Race and deeply entrenched structures of anti-black racism were always part of the story of school desegregation, but in focusing on protests by politicians and activists like Kirk and McCabe, television news kept race and racism just out of focus.
Understanding how parents and politicians successfully used television to lobby against the major civil rights issue of the 1970s builds on scholars like Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steven Classen, Herman Gray and Sasha Torres who have shown the importance of television to the history and memory of the civil rights movement, as well as scholars of grassroots conservative politics like Donald Critchlow, Lisa McGirr, Michelle Nickerson and Catherine Rymph. In this way, this essay contributes to scholarship on conservative media practices, which as television studies scholar Amanda Lotz recently noted in Cinema Journal, 'remains limited'. The busing debate foregrounded competing ways of conceptualizing space (e.g., metropolitan school districts vs. neighbourhood schools) and understanding how television framed these issues builds on the work of scholars like Anna McCarthy and Lynn Spigel who have explored the spatial relationships engendered by television, as well as historians like Jack Dougherty, Ansley Erickson, Matthew Lassiter and Jeanne Theoharis who examine the interconnections among schools, cites and suburbs, and local and national politics.
My analysis of how Kirk and McCabe, working at the state and local levels, leveraged the specific characteristics of television news to reach national television audiences also builds on work on television news and social movements by Bonnie Dow, Todd Giltin and Gaye Tuchman, as well as local histories of school desegregation and busing by historians like William Chafe, Davison Douglas, Ronald Formisano, Brett Gadsden, Tracy K’Meyer, Gregory Jacobs and Robert Pratt. These angles of analysis are important, because despite important case-studies on busing in metropolitan areas, social and political historians have not attended to the media strategies of anti-busing protestors or how television news framed local busing fights as part of a larger national story. Similarly, none of public policy scholar Gary Orfield’s extensive publications on busing and school desegregation makes more than a passing mention of television, nor do the works of analysts, like Christine Rossell or David Armor, who argued against busing.
Focusing on television coverage of busing also offers a new angle from which to examine what historian Matthew Lassiter calls 'regional convergence'. As Lassiter describes, the Nixon administration contributed to, and benefited from, the South converging with the North, East and West, to form a new national politics in which the rights and consumer preferences of white middle-class (largely suburban) homeowners were paramount. This political platform disavowed explicit appeals to anti-black racism in favour of colour-blind rhetoric to justify segregated neighbourhoods and schools. Nixon called these voters the 'Silent Majority' (and elsewhere the 'Forgotten Americans' and the 'New American Majority'). Television coverage of busing played an important role in this regional convergence because newscasts made it clear that resistance to school integration was not unique to the South. Anti-busing protests in Louisville and Memphis looked a lot like protests in Cleveland and Seattle and television helped to make this regional convergence visible. Television networks, encouraged both by commercial interests and charges of liberal bias from the Nixon administration and other conservative critics, were invested in articulating their national reach to viewers and advertisers. Where the Nixon administration saw white suburban families as the 'Silent Majority', television news networks saw these same households as their largest and most profitable demographic. Nixon’s statements on busing, like the 1972 March speech, made this regional convergence explicit, emphasizing that cities and school districts in the 'North, East, West, and South…have been torn apart in debate over this issue'. If television viewers watching Nixon’s speech needed evidence of the national reach of the busing issue, they only needed to watch the nightly news for an update on Irene McCabe’s 620-mile trek from Pontiac to Washington DC in support of a constitutional amendment sponsored by Norman Lent, a US congressman from New York. Television news made busing battles in Bradenton and Pontiac meaningful for national audience, but did little to illuminate the historical and legal context for segregated schools in these cities.