In 1896, Homer Plessy, who was 1/8th black, entered a whites-only railroad car in New Orleans and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the doctrine of “Separate but equal” was constitutional; as long as equal facilities were provided for different races, it was “fair.” Justice John Marshall Harlan was the one dissenting vote and wrote, “The Constitution is colorblind.”
This “separate but equal” doctrine stood for 50 years until in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision saying, “Separate is inherently unequal.” In the majority opinion, they quoted Justice Harlan.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a significant chapter of Fullerton’s civil rights story centered around how to desegregate Maple Elementary School, which was 98% Latino and Black at the time.
Officially, segregation of African American students in California was outlawed by the State Supreme Court in 1890, and the segregation of Mexican-American students succumbed to a legal challenge by a group of parents in Orange County in the case Mendez v. Westminster in 1947. And in 1954, the Brown decision case declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine was unconstitutional.
However, while de jure (legal) segregation was made illegal, de facto (in practice) segregation remained. Neighborhoods were still separated by patterns of historic housing discrimination–so schools remained segregated.
The integration plan many districts came up with was to bus students to schools outside their (de facto segregated) neighborhoods.
While many in the north were ideologically opposed to segregated schools, many white parents were also opposed to having their kids bused from their neighborhood schools to schools in black and Latino neighborhoods.
Thus it was often the case that, in order to comply with desegregation orders, districts would adopt one-way busing, in which they would bus black and Latino kids to majority white schools, but not bus white kids to majority black and Latino schools.
A fairer, but often dismissed, proposal was two-way busing, in which the busing would be reciprocal—with some white kids going to majority black and Latino Schools, and some black and Latino kids going to majority white schools.
In his 2016 book Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, historian Matthew F. Delmont chronicles this oft-forgotten aspect of the American Civil Rights story—when millions of Americans decided the limits of desegregation.
A few examples:
• New York: In March 1964, over 10,000 white parents walked from the Board of Education building in Brooklyn to city hall in Manhattan to protest against integration of New York City schools. 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.
• Chicago: In 1967, superintendent Redmond proposed a plan to bus 5,000 black and white students between the South Shore and Austin areas. After white protests, this two-way plan was discarded in favor of a one-way plan.
• Boston: In 1966, Boston implemented a one-way busing program called METCO. Suburban communities welcomed a small number of black students from Boston city schools through the METCO program, but opposed two-way “busing” (that is, sending suburban kids to Boston city schools and vice versa).
In March 1972, President Richard Nixon delivered a nationally-televised speech in which he called on Congress to enact a moratorium on orders mandating that school districts use busing of students to achieve school desegregation.
While Brown v. Board of Education may have established the legal mandate that “separate but equal” schools are unconstitutional, actual implementation of integrating schools took much longer and in some places never really happened.
Two important court cases in California in 1963, Crawford v. Los Angeles School Board and Jackson v. Pasadena City School District prompted the State Board of Education to adopt an advisory policy “declaring that any school whose enrollment of minority students differed by more than 15% from the percentage of students in the district as a whole would be considered racially imbalanced and would require the school district to take corrective action.”
As a result of these cases and State orders, Fullerton began the process of desegregating Maple School.
Fullerton resident Roberto “Bobby” Melendez was among the first students to be bused from Maple to one of eight other schools to begin the desegregation process during the 1966-67 school year when 5th and 6th graders were bused. Bobby was going into sixth grade. He, along with a number of friends from Maple, was bused to Acacia school.
“I think we were more of a curiosity to the kids that were there because they were like social distancing from us,” Melendez said in an interview with the Observer. “They were kind of looking at us with some surprise.”
Fortunately, he knew some boys from Acacia from playing East Fullerton Little League, like his friend Kevin Barlow.
“So we went up to Kevin and his friends during recess and said, ‘Lets play some football.’ So we all played that day…It was the browns against the whites,” Melendez said.
When the bell rang, Kevin walked up to Bobby and said, “Tomorrow I’ll be on your team.”
Thus began the integration of Acacia school—not with federal troops, but with a game of schoolyard football.
“I think that set the stage,” Melendez said. “We became very good friends. I got to stay over at some of the houses of some of my new friends that I met.”
Bobby was fortunate in having a group that bonded over sports. While at Acacia, he remembers noticing a difference in the quality of the books and facilities between Maple and Acacia.
Fullerton resident Mary Perkins, who is African American, said that her son and daughter were also among the first students to be bused from Maple for integration. They too were bused to Acacia.
“When my son was at Acacia, he was the only black student in the whole student body,” Mary said in an interview with the Observer. “My daughter [one grade behind her brother] did have one other girl there [who was] African American. They were not kind to them, you know. They told them, ‘My mother says I have to be nice to you because you’re poor.’ That kind of stuff.”
Mary and her husband Gil moved to Fullerton in 1960 with their two children.
“We were looking for a place for the kids to go to school where they could get all their education in one place, so we decided on Fullerton,” Mary said.
While Fullerton “the Education City” offered many educational opportunities, housing options were limited for African Americans at that time.
“We looked for a house in a lot of places, but they [realtors] would only show us two tracts when we were looking for a house. One was here [on Truslow] and one was in Placentia,” Mary said.
Gil Perkins involved himself in fair housing and often spoke at City Council meetings on behalf of his neighborhood.
As 1970 rolled around, all 12 Orange County school districts were ordered by the State to rectify their racially imbalanced enrollments. Although the Fullerton School District had begun busing 5th and 6th graders out of the Maple neighborhood for the past few years, the State ordered that Maple could not have more than a 30% minority enrollment.
Maple at the time had a 98% Latino and black enrollment.
The LA Times wrote, “Although Maple School is the only one in Fullerton identified as imbalanced, it has perhaps the most seriously lopsided classrooms in all of Orange County.”
A Human Relations Advisory Committee was formed in 1971 to develop integration plans for Maple. They all involved voluntary two-way busing.
Judith Kaluzny was part of this committee, which developed three integration plans, all of which called for voluntary two-way busing of students between Maple and other schools, and keeping Maple open. Unfortunately, according to Kaluzny, the administration was determined to close Maple school.
“Our plans were summarily dismissed,” Kaluzny remembers. “We were supposed to have eliminated segregation in our elementary schools by eliminating the segregated school.”
After basically discarding the plans created by the Human Relations Committee, the FSD administration then created its own desegregation plans, which involved closing down Maple entirely. All involved one-way busing of kids out of the Maple neighborhood.
Dr. Richard Ramirez, who grew up in the Maple neighborhood, was a sociology professor at Fullerton College in 1972. He got involved with the Maple Community group because he felt that the families in the neighborhood were not being treated fairly by the school administration and the community at large.
“The burden of busing was put on just one segment of the community—those that had the least collective voice,” Ramirez said. “The Board did not reflect that segment of the community.”
Ramirez was instrumental in helping formulate the Maple Community’s own desegregation plan, which called for two-way busing and other measures to achieve equity.
Part of his role was to meet with parents in north Fullerton to better understand their concerns.
“I’d say we had 10 to 15 different small family group meetings with them,” Ramirez said. “The common theme that came out of our discussions with them was they were fearful for their kids because they would be going into the ‘barrio,’ the ‘ghetto.’”
The other main concern of the largely white parents of north Fullerton was the quality of education at Maple.
“Those were the two consistent themes—fear and anxiety as far as the quality of education at Maple, and the simple fact that they just didn’t want their kids to mix with the brown kids,” Ramirez said.
At a crowded school board meeting in January 1972, Ramirez and the Maple community presented their plan for desegregation, which involved keeping Maple open and implementing two-way busing between north and south Fullerton.
Among the numerous speakers at that meeting was Florine Yoder who said she represented the residents of north Fullerton. According to the Fullerton News Tribune, which chronicled many of these meetings for posterity, “Yoder told the board that if minorities wanted to attend a desegregated school, they must accept the responsibilities of desegregation, including busing and attending a school out of their neighborhood.”
Evidently, the responsibility of desegregation did not extend to those predominantly white families in north Fullerton.
“We do not want our children bused and we want to retain schools in our own neighborhoods,” Yoder told the board.
Reflecting on those meetings, Ramirez said, “It was really a question of fairness. If indeed we have to follow this federal law, then every family, every child should be able to give the same level of responsibility.”
The following week, 200 Fullerton residents showed up at another school board meeting to discuss the seven different desegregation plans—three from the Human Relations Committee, three from the administration, and one from the Maple Community.
“We want meaningful education, not useless transportation,” said Layton R. Buckner, spokesman for the Concerned Parents and Citizens of Sunset Lane School [in north Fullerton]. “We feel it is wiser to spend money on teachers, books, and special programs than on buses and bus drivers.”
Some Latinos, like Larry Labrado, were also against busing.
“Chicanos don’t want to go to your schools,” he said. “We want better education at our school.”
The News-Tribune reported, “Any discussion of the specifics of the seven plans was lost in the attacks on busing and the laws that require desegregation.”
In February 1972, over 500 people packed into Wilshire Auditorium to voice their opinions on the question of Maple School. At the meeting, police in riot gear were on hand to ensure an orderly proceeding.
After lively public debate, the School Board voted 3-2 to adopt a desegregation plan that closed Maple School and called for the busing of all children from the Maple neighborhood to eight other schools.
Board members Alvin M. Berlowe, Nancy Fix, and Steward L. Johnson voted in favor. Board president Robert F. Rube and Lloyd G. Carnahan voted against.
As was documented in the Fullerton News-Tribune, Board President Rube said, “You can’t tell me it’s right to close Maple and not close other schools.”
“The inequity of placing the main burden of desegregation on the minority community was a common theme during the hour and 20 minute discussion period preceding the vote,” according to the News-Tribune.
“Why are we putting on the backs of the minority the responsibility of integrating the schools?” asked Bruce Johnson. He called for a “new advisory committee that will not be disbanded until an equitable and just solution is found.”
Upon completion of the vote, Barney Schur, consultant in intergroup relations for the California Department of Education said, “You are going to have a problem with it [one-way busing]. It is viewed as unconstitutional by the courts.”
According to the News-Tribune, “Upon hearing the vote, several representatives of the largely Chicano Maple community threatened lawsuits on the basis of discrimination.”
To be continued…