Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

Pontiac beyond the TV frame

None of the television networks referred to Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac (1970), the court case that led to the busing order. In Davis, Judge Keith wrote:
This Court finds that the Pontiac Board of Education intentionally utilized the power at their disposal to locate new schools and arrange boundaries in such a way as to perpetuate the pattern of segregation within the City and thereby, deliberately, in contradiction of their announced policies of achieving a racial mixture in the schools, prevented integration. When the power to act is available, failure to take the necessary steps so as to negate or alleviate a situation which is harmful is as wrong as is the taking of affirmative steps to advance that situation. Sins of omission can be as serious as sins of commission. Where a Board of Education has contributed and played a major role in the development and growth of a segregated situation, the Board is guilty of de jure segregation. The fact that such came slowly and surreptitiously rather than by legislative pronouncement makes the situation no less evil.

Keith’s Davis ruling made Pontiac one of the first cities outside of the South to be placed under court order to desegregate. The notion that the school desegregation controversy had moved North fuelled much of the news coverage of Pontiac, but Judge Keith’s ruling made it clear that school segregation in Pontiac was not a new occurrence but had developed over several decades. Just as importantly, the Davis decision cast a critical light on so-called de facto segregation. Rather than seeing school segregation as a product of market forces and private decisions that government had no legal responsibility or authority to address, Judge Keith found that Pontiac school officials took specific actions regarding school siting, zoning and student assignment that contributed to the growth of a segregated school system and were unconstitutional. The Davis ruling was one of a number of successful cases brought by the NAACP and NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the early 1970s regarding school desegregation outside of the South, including cases in other Michigan cities – Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, and Detroit – as well as Keyes v. School District No. 1 (1973), the US Supreme Court’s decision which found evidence of unconstitutional segregation in Denver. The optimism prompted by these cases was severely constrained when US Supreme Court overturned federal district judge Stephen Roth’s decision in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), ruling that desegregation plans could not extend into suburban school districts unless multiple districts had deliberately engaged in segregated polices. The Nixon administration, moreover, encourage the Justice Department to focus its resources on de jure segregation in the South rather than de facto segregation.  

The Davis ruling confirmed the existence of school segregation in Pontiac, a fact that was obvious to anyone who cared to look. A 1968 report from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission described Pontiac as 'clearly segregated, with non-whites confined to a slowly expanding ghetto in the southern part of the city', which whites commonly referred to 'coloured town.' 'Although Pontiac adopted a "Fair Housing Ordinance" last year', the Commission’s report continued,
conditions remain as they have been for the past two or three decades…Pontiac is a city divided by racial and ethnic prejudices and fears. Negro and Spanish American citizens are excluded from full participation in employment, housing, education, and social services. They are often denied equal protection under the laws and equal access to jobs and law enforcement agencies. The physical isolation which has resulted between white and nonwhite citizens has led to a communications gap of staggering proportions. Civil and governmental leaders have little concern for, or understanding of minority group problems. Negroes and Spanish Americans grow more and more distrustful of a community they feel is trying to contain them.

Pontiac NAACP chairman, Elbert Hatchett, who attended public schools in the city, knew well the dynamics of Pontiac’s racial segregation and recalled that this knowledge proved invaluable when he served as the plaintiff’s attorney in the Davis case. 'We knew the Pontiac school system backwards and forwards, and we knew that it was a system that had race as one of the considerations in the manner in which they undertook to educate the populace in the city of Pontiac', Hatchett recalled. 'And we knew that the schools that were in the white affluent areas were given the benefit of much better facilities, much better equipment, much better everything than the counterparts in the predominantly black areas.' Like Hatchett, Pontiac teacher Jo Ann Walker understood the differences between the city’s majority black and white schools and elaborated on these disparities in her testimony before a Senate committee on equal education opportunity, describing the difference in resources and educational environment in black versus white schools as 'like going from hell to heaven'. Whereas failing furnaces caused students in black schools to wear winter coats inside on cold days and teachers lacked pencils and chalk, at LeBaron, where the only black students were in special education classes, Walker noted that 'there was a stockroom full of paper and pencils, everything you needed to do the job'. LeBaron school, Walker told the Senate committee, 'is the school where Mrs. McCabe’s daughter would go if she were not boycotting'. In his testimony to the same committee, Hatchett fielded a question from Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota, the committee chairman, who asked: 'Was your case [Davis] really so hard to prove as the Government often claims northern cases to be?' 'The [school] board came to the court and forthrightly admitted…that the school system was segregated', Hatchett replied. 'The only thing we were left with was to argue the cause…So it was not quite as difficult as many of the northern cases.' The history of school segregation in Pontiac that preceded the Davis case and court ordered desegregation were crucial to making sense of NAG’s anti-busing protests, but little of this context reached television viewers. Television news reporters were drawn to the Pontiac protests as a new Northern angle on the school integration story, but did little to explain the series of events that led to the busing conflicts.

More than simply providing balance to their busing coverage, had television news reporters spent more time talking to black residents in Pontiac they would have found conflicting feelings regarding busing as a means of achieving education equality. Sadie Davis, whose son Donald Davis, Jr was the named plaintiff in the Davis case, told the Detroit Free Press that she 'does not necessarily' support busing, but that 'I support total integration of the schools, and, in Pontiac, busing is the only way you can integrate.' Sadie’s husband, Donald Davis, Sr made it clear that he was concerned about the limited curricular options and materials at the majority black Franklin school. 'I don’t blame white parents for not wanting their children to go to Franklin', he said. 'I didn’t want mine to go their either. Maybe now they’ll try to upgrade the education there'. Charles Tucker, Jr, a black businessman and member of the City Commission, also noted the importance of equal resources:
All I want is that every person gets equal services from the community’s tax dollars. Blacks really aren’t all that interested in living in areas because they’re white areas. […] It’s hard to accept the fact that we must have integration in order to provide the same kind of services for people living on the (predominantly black) south end as they have had on the (predominantly white) north end. But I guess at this time, we must.

Television newscasts regularly sought out a black politician or parent as a representative voice to balance their focus on white anti-busing protestors, but such voices received limited airtime and, more importantly, could not possibly represent the range of African American viewpoints regarding busing. Many black parents opposed busing in favour of more control of schools in black communities, while others offered cautious and qualified support for busing, while raising concerns about the quality of schools, the distance of bus rides and the safety of black children bused to white neighbourhoods. Rather than adapting their coverage to present the multiple and often conflicting black opinions on busing, network newscasts structured their busing segments in ways that presented individual black politicians, activists or parents as representative of the black opinion on busing.

The range of opinions on busing among white Pontiac residents was also more varied than television news coverage of McCabe and NAG would suggest. Shirley Frantz, president of the Alcott Parent–Teacher Association in north-west Pontiac, confessed that she 'was afraid to go to the black end of town' but changed her opinion on busing after an exchange visit to the majority black Bagley school, where her 10-year-old son was assigned. 'All you ever heard was that Bagley was the worst school in Pontiac', she said. 'But the principal helped to change my mind. He made me feel right at home and I know he’ll take good care of [my son]. If more mothers had gone, they’d have felt better, too.' Several letters to the editor in the Detroit Free Press criticized McCabe and white protestors. One letter argued that while 'Irene McCabe may feel she is spouting good old fashioned WASP Christian ethic' she will one day need to answer charges of 'inciting to riot through demagoguery' and 'racism.' Michael Elli wrote, 'I, and I suspect others like me, are becoming increasingly disgusted with the continuing antics of the white mobs in Pontiac. I sincerely wish that Irene McCabe would take her red-neck friends and go back to Alabama, where they belong, and make Michigan a better place to live in.' While this writer either did not know or wanted to ignore the fact that McCabe was born and raised in Pontiac and found abundant support among longtime Michigan residents, letters like these highlight that Pontiac’s white residents were not as unified in their opposition to busing as television news coverage suggested.

Television news, of course, rarely offered this type of historical depth or detailed surveys of public opinion. William Grant, education editor for the Detroit Free Press, suggested that this was particularly true for school desegregation. 'School desegregation is one of the issues which the media are least suited to cover,' Grant argued.
The media are best able to report on events which unfold within a short time span – a day, a week, a few weeks at most. Those things which develop over much longer periods of time are likely to be covered by many different reporters. It is difficult for newspaper stories, and even more difficult for broadcast reports, of a long-running event to capture the origins and history of the issue…Desegregation involves understanding law, education, and social science. There are few lawyers, educators or social scientists who have managed that broad understanding. It is not surprising that few journalists do either.

If school desegregation was difficult for local reporters to cover, these challenges were even more acute for national television reporters who arrived in cities like Pontiac with few local sources and little knowledge of the issues surrounding desegregation in that specific community. In the absence of the local knowledge or contacts for informed background reports, television reporters and their camera people were drawn to events and speakers that would make the issue easily legible to a national audience. McCabe and other activists understood that a highly vocal and visible anti-busing minority would garner the majority of the media’s attention. Television news personnel did not need to share the politics of activists to be drawn to anti-busing leaders and protests and to deem these people and events worthy of regular news coverage. 

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