While busing for school desegregation was one of the major political, educational, and civil rights stories of the past 40 years, previous studies focus primarily on the implementation dates and duration of busing orders in various cities, paying little attention to the extensive national and local media coverage of busing protests. From the late-1960s to the late-1980s, busing orders and protests in cities like Boston, Louisville, Charlotte, Buffalo, San Francisco, Detroit, and Dallas, appeared frequently on national and local television news, shaping perceptions of the successes and failures of busing for millions of viewers across the U.S.
Anti-busing activists were savvy in their approach to television and made use of several of the media strategies that were used successfully by African-American civil rights activists just years earlier. Anti-busing activists, for example, staged highly visible confrontations that positioned mothers and children as victims of abusive authorities. Anti-busing activists also used the language of homeowners rights — examined by historians like David Freund, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and Matthew Lassiter — to justify segregation neighborhoods and schools. Just as importantly, anti-busing activists leveraged characteristics of television news—its emphasis on crisis and “liveness,” its selective use of historical context, and its nominal political neutrality—to argue that their rights were being violated by activist judges and federal bureaucrats.
I presented on the early stages of this research in the “Schooling in Mass Societies” series at the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry at Pitzer College. The video of this talk, “How Television Thwarted Busing for School Desegregation,” is below.