The Limits of Desegregation: A Story of Maple School (Part 4)

The following is part of an ongoing series about school desegregation efforts in Fullerton from the 1960s to today. The main focus has been on Maple Elementary School, which was closed in 1972, and all its students bused to other schools in the district to achieve integration. This was part of a larger state and national conversation/controversy about busing and desegregation in the 1970s.

Prop 1: The Robbins Amendment

Part 3 of this series addressed Prop 21, which passed in 1972 and sought to end the practice of busing kids to desegregate schools in California. Prop 21 was championed by a fiery conservative from Los Angeles named Floyd Wakefield who railed against the yoke of “forced integration.”

Although a majority of voters favored it, Prop 21 was declared unconstitutional in 1975 (it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment), but it did have a chilling effect on state desegregation efforts.

Wakefield’s successor in the fight against busing to achieve desegregation was, interestingly, not another conservative Republican, but a liberal Democrat from the San Fernando Valley named Alan Robbins. Robbins had supported the Equal Rights Amendment (for women) and supported the United Farm Workers.

Robbins learned from the legal shortcomings of Prop 21 and carefully crafted an initiative in 1979 (Prop 1) that would stand up to constitutional and legal challenges. The Robbins Amendment, like the Wakefield Amendment, sought to end mandatory busing of students to achieve integration in California.

“The Robbins Amendment sought to amend the California State Equal Protection Clause by stating that as long as the US Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment as only prohibiting de jure (legally mandated, as opposed to de facto—in practice—segregation), California courts would have to do the same,” historian Daniel Martinez Hosang writes in his book Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California.

“Calls among busing opponents for the protection of ‘majority rights’ quickly waned in favor of arguments that represented the interests of ‘all children,’” Hosang writes.

Bumper stickers by Californians Against Forced Busing in support of the Robbins Amendment (Prop 1), 1979. From the Files of the Bustop Campaign.

But the burden of desegregation did not fall equally on “all children.”

Both Prop 21 in 1972 and Prop 1 in 1979 are significant to the Maple School story because they give the broader context of widespread opposition to busing kids as a means to achieve school integration, and the disproportionate impact this had on students of color.

Because Maple school had been closed, students from that predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood continued to be bused.

The 1972 Maple “solution” reflected a wider state and national trend in the 1970s in which busing was either abandoned, outlawed, or (as with Maple) the burden was placed entirely on the minority community.

“Thus the debate over busing in the late 1970s was primarily a debate over whether white students could be compelled to participate in desegregation programs, or whether that burden would fall exclusively on nonwhite students,” Hosang writes.

In his book Why Busing Failed, historian Matthew Delmont discusses how the busing debate was often framed in ways that downplayed the civil rights/constitutionality of the issue.

“White parents and politicians framed their resistance to school desegregation in terms of ‘busing’ and ‘neighborhood schools.’ This rhetorical shift allowed them to support white schools and white neighborhoods without using explicitly racist language,” Delmont writes.

Ultimately, Prop 1 passed by a large majority. Like Prop 21, it was challenged on legal grounds as unconstitutional. Unlike Prop 21, it held up to legal challenge. Its appeal made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, where the court voted 8-1 to uphold its constitutionality.

The lone dissenting vote was Justice Thurgood Marshall, who wrote in his dissent, “The fact that California attempts to cloak its discrimination in the mantle of the 14th Amendment does not alter this result.”

“The Supreme Court ruling was a death knell for mandatory desegregation programs throughout the state,” Hosang writes. “The end of mandatory desegregation meant that the burden of busing had fallen almost exclusively on students of color.”

For example, “by 1980, Black students in California would be more likely to attend a segregated school than in any state in the South except Mississippi,” Hosang writes.

These continuing patterns of segregation, now given legal support, continue to today.

“Twenty-five years after the passage of the Robbins Amendment, patterns of racial isolation and segregation were at all-time highs,” Hosang writes.

Fighting for the Maple Community Center

After its closure in 1972, Maple Elementary School became the Maple Community Center (MCC), housing a preschool, Headstart, a daycare, and an experimental Community Open School.

Every five years or so, the Maple area residents had to fight to keep even these programs. In 1978, the Fullerton School District first considered closing the MCC, but ultimately decided against it.

News clipping courtesy of the Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library.

In 1983, the District again proposed closing the MCC, citing a budget deficit. The Board of Trustees initially considered closing either Orangethorpe, Commonwealth, or Hermosa Drive Schools, but shied away from closing any of these after outcry from parents.

“Whenever financial problems come up, they [trustees] talk about closing Maple—we’re always picked on,” Martha Rodriguez (a Maple parent) told the Fullerton News-Tribune.

Faced with the possible closure of the MCC, parents and advocates attended FSD Board meetings in great numbers in February and March of 1983. They also organized a letter-writing campaign to board members and the district.

One particularly eloquent letter was submitted by Brig Owens, an African American NFL player who grew up in the Maple neighborhood.

In his letter to then District Superintendent Duncan Johnson, Owens called the MCC “an extremely necessary facility. This decision not only will affect the children and lives of their families, but it will affect the community as a whole,” Owens wrote. “Too often in the face of progress we lose sight of the true needs of our community and families…I realize tough decisions have to be made and there are no easy answers but let us not sacrifice these programs that are for the betterment of the community.” (Fullerton News Tribune, 1983).

At a Fullerton School District Board meeting in March 1983, around 175 Maple neighborhood residents showed up wearing “Keep Maple Open” buttons.

As reported in the News-Tribune, “Thuc Nguyen, a mother of a child in pre-school at the Center and a full-time volunteer there, broke down in tears at one point in her speech to trustees.”

“How can I explain to my son how Maple won’t be there for him?” Ms. Nguyen said. “I am a single parent of two pre-school children. I don’t think my children can handle another breakup.”

As a result of the parents’ organizing, the Board did not close the MCC in 1983.

Preschool teacher Sylvia Quezada a with a student. The Maple Community Center operated a preschool after the elementary school was closed. Photo from the Fullerton Observer archives.

The Maple Alumni Committee

In 1983, Bobby Melendez, Vivien “Kitty’ Jaramillo and others from the Maple neighborhood decided to organize an annual get-together for families in the neighborhood whose kids had been or were being bused to schools outside the neighborhood.

This group eventually became the Maple Alumni Committee.

“We started in 1983 to get together for picnics, just to keep ourselves together, so our children could know each other, so we could just bond one time a year,” Melendez said in an interview with The Observer.

One consequence of closing Maple School was to cut off the normal inter-familial ties that come with having a school in your neighborhood.

“The school would have served that function but as we were all in the waning years of having gone to Maple School, having the experience of being bused out together, I think that kind of galvanized our relationship together—having that similar experience,” Melendez said. “So that alumni committee organized dances, and the dances became fundraisers for Maple School.”

By the late 1980s, the prospect of re-opening Maple as an elementary school would become the subject of much discussion and debate.

To be continued…