Elnora Crowder liked to ease into her Saturdays after a week of teaching school. But on this particular day in 1963 she got up early and headed for Watts, a journey that would leave a lasting mark on the public schools of Los Angeles.
When Crowder approached some teen-agers in a park, “They actually recoiled from me saying, ‘Blacks go to a white school?’ ” she recalls. “It was like I was asking them to go to the moon.”
She went house to house like “an Avon lady,” ringing doorbells. Finally, at one on Maie Avenue she found who she was looking for--a Jordan High School student named Mary Ellen Crawford, whose family was willing to be named in a desegregation lawsuit to be filed by the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People against the Los Angeles Board of Education.
“I put Mary Ellen in my car and raced downtown to the law office, where we signed the complaint,” Crowder said.
So began a 26-year legal battle to desegregate Los Angeles schools, a battle that ended March 27 with little fanfare when a federal judge dismissed the last remaining defendant, the state Department of Education. In January, the Los Angeles Unified School District was dropped from the lawsuit.
First in Nation
The “Crawford case,” as it came to be known, was the first of its kind in the nation, contending that the school board had a duty to integrate classrooms even though segregation was caused by changing neighborhood growth patterns.
The lawsuit’s quiet demise belied often vicious fighting between pro- and anti-busing forces that stretched from San Fernando Valley suburbs to inner-city playgrounds. It was a struggle that launched careers and dashed others--the Encino housewife who founded Bustop and went on to become a congresswoman, the Latino teacher who lost his credentials leading student protests, the school board president who was recalled.
Today, old soldiers on both sides lament that neither camp was truly victorious. Supporters of the suit say the district remains largely segregated along racial lines, despite voluntary busing programs such as those to magnet schools. And many believe that the district’s latest plan to spend $431 million over the next 10 years to raise achievement levels at minority schools would have been unnecessary if the original desegregation plan had worked.
At the same time, those who fought against the complaint find little solace in the fact that compulsory busing didn’t last. The legal battle wasted public money, they say, and led to overcrowded classrooms in largely suburban, Anglo neighborhoods.
Attorneys for the state Board of Education, meanwhile, argue that demographic shifts have rendered the Crawford case moot. Today, Anglo youngsters account for 15.8% of the enrollment, compared to 55% in 1963. Latinos now represent 51% of the district’s 595,000 students, and blacks make up 16.7%.
“When I heard about the decision on the radio, I felt a great deal of melancholy,” said former Superior Court Judge Paul Egly, who ordered mandatory busing in 1978. It lasted three years. “I thought about all of those well-meaning people who wanted good results, the tremendous amount of energy expended. The case could have done a lot of good, yet it whimpered out like a wet firecracker.”
Egly was the second judicial casualty in the meandering case. The first was the late Superior Court Judge Alfred Gitelson, who in 1970 ordered the district to integrate. Gitelson was defeated the same year after a bitter election in which critics called him the “busing judge.”
The school board appealed Gitelson’s decision and after years of legal wrangling the state Supreme Court ruled against the district.
Egly, who had labored in happy anonymity in Pomona, found a hornet’s nest when called into the Los Angeles case in 1977. After his first three days on the job, “I dug out from under all the reading of the evidence. My heart just sank. I knew it was going to be next to impossible. The demography had changed completely.”
For Egly, it was the “most troublesome case of my career, not to say the most memorable.” In response to Gitelson’s order, the school board had hammered out a busing plan. Egly rejected it as unconstitutional. A later subsequent plan, which he approved, resulted in the busing of 85,000 students.
Like others in the case, Egly was the target of recall attempts, hate mail and death threats, worked long, exhausting hours and was ignored by former friends who differed with him on the issue.
Then came Proposition 1 in 1979, which barred state courts from ordering busing as a remedy for segregation. And after the California Supreme Court upheld the initiative, Egly quit the case, saying he was burned out. He later resigned from the bench, saying that the election campaign would have focused on busing rather than his qualifications.
Now retired, Egly does some work as a judge in private disputes and travels with his wife. “Occasionally, I run into attorneys who were children I bused,” he said. “I don’t know that justice was served. There is still isolation between the ethnic groups and that bothers me.”
Fred Okrand, a Pasadena lawyer who was one of five attorneys filing the case, said: “The lawsuit focused the board’s attention on the evils of segregation. But the board failed to provide the psychological frame of mind that was necessary for successful desegregation. In later years, they tried, but then the demographics shifted.
“This was one of my biggest cases and biggest disappointments,” Okrand added.
Marnesba Tackett was a real estate broker and head of the United Civil Rights Council education committee when Elnora Crawford volunteered to find a Jordan High School student for the lawsuit.
Tackett recalls why Jordan High was chosen. At the time, Jordan and South Gate High School were less than two miles apart.
“The education at South Gate was so much better, there was no comparison. Alameda Street, the boundary which separated them was called ‘the line.’ We got some of the children special permits to go to South Gate and the white citizens of South Gate threw eggs at them. We noticed that the school board kept expanding Jordan’s boundary as more black children moved into it instead of sending them to South Gate. On that basis we felt Jordan was the strategic school to target for the suit.”
During the busing fight, Tackett was called a communist and was threatened. “But I couldn’t stop,” she said. “It was like Frederick Douglass said to his wife, ‘If you teach that black boy to read, you unfit him to be a slave.’ ”
Of the lawsuit’s dismissal, which came after the NAACP said it lacked the money to continue, Tackett says: “It’s the same kind of thing. People who have the money outlasted the people with limited funds. They won by default. The schools are more segregated than they have ever been.”
Former activist Crowder, now a school librarian, said education in the district has improved for minorities with better textbooks, smaller classes in some instances and more attractive campuses. But such steps have not been enough, she says.
As for Mary Ellen Crawford, the former Jordan High student who was the lawsuit’s first plaintiff, friends say she has kept a low profile for a number of years and prefers to stay out of the public spotlight.
Rallying opposition to the suit was Bustop, a grass-roots organization that was formed in 1975 at Encino’s Lanai Road School. A white teacher was about to be transferred and replaced by a black teacher. Housewife Bobbi Fiedler believed the school board had no right to choose teachers on the basis of race. To this day, she insists that Bustop’s stand was not racist, but one supporting individual freedom.
For Fiedler, the busing issue changed her life. When Bustop formed, she was a 38-year-old mother undergoing a divorce who didn’t want her two children bused across town. Within months, Bustop claimed 30,000 members.
“It was funny because I couldn’t stand politicians, but I suddenly found myself running for office,” Fiedler said.
She defeated pro-busing Board of Education President Robert Docter. Busing was the paramount issue in 1980 when she edged out 10-term Democrat James C. Corman of Van Nuys to win a congressional seat. She later ran for the Senate, but a grand jury accused her and an aide of trying to bribe another candidate to stay out of the race. While a judge ruled the indictments groundless, the publicity dashed her chances.
Today, Fiedler is a consultant to an engineering firm and recently decided not to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Her reaction to the suit’s dismissal: “Thank God it’s over.”
“The case was a tragic waste of resources, both human and financial,” she said. “But then I realized the issue is not dead. I’m convinced that the proponents of forced busing will not give up.”
Fiedler believes that voluntary programs, such as magnet schools, have been effective, but that money would have been better spent improving neighborhood schools.
Howard Miller was a professor of law at USC when his brief school board career ended in a recall election in 1979. He had been appointed in 1976 to fill a vacancy and was elected president the next year. “I decided to do it because it seemed interesting, was supposed to be part time, and seemed a good way to do public service and not change my life too much,” he said, laughing.
The busing issue was at its zenith then, with the school board trying to hammer out an acceptable desegregation plan as ordered by the court, and Bustop trying to undo it.
Miller was recalled after a bitter reelection campaign. “The handwriting was on the wall. It was a referendum on busing. Later, I was even offered a job by a friend who told me he had voted for my recall.”
Today Miller is in private practice. “I learned how difficult it is for government to deal with these very deep-rooted problems,” he said. “But a large part of what we did was based on the belief that we had to shake the system to get any change. It was huge and lethargic. We wanted to use the integration plan to improve student performance. We built in smaller class sizes, and a competency testing program. We were able to use the external club of the integration program to improve the school system.”
Jean Mulligan was a Granada Hills mother of two children and PTA chapter president when she plunged into the fight to recall Miller. “It was my first involvement in public affairs,” she recalled. “I wanted to make sure my daughter didn’t have to be bused.”
The effort nearly landed her in jail. Mulligan was fined $5,000 and placed on three years’ probation for her part in forging signatures on the recall petitions. At the time, prosecutors alleged that the write-in was orchestrated by Roberta Weintraub, who spearheaded the recall and gained a seat on the board. Today, she is board president.
Mulligan admitted that she and another volunteer copied signatures at her kitchen table. The district attorney did not file charges against Weintraub, saying that Mulligan and the other volunteer’s testimony could not be corroborated.
Called Traumatic Time
Mulligan now owns a small real estate appraisal business with her husband. When she heard the news that the case was dropped, “I thought, whoopee, it’s about time. It was a traumatic time for myself. I learned my lesson. And it was my last involvement in public affairs. I even saw Howard Miller a few years ago and he said to me, ‘Jean, thanks, you did me a favor.’ ”
Weintraub, who is running for reelection next Tuesday, says of the landmark desegregation case: “I thought it was over eight years ago” when forced busing was dropped. "(Forced busing) tore the city in half. It was a social experiment that failed abysmally.”
Another who found himself in legal trouble was Sal Castro, a Lincoln High School teacher who participated in student walkouts in East Los Angeles in 1968. He was indicted by a county grand jury on suspicion of conspiracy in student protests at predominantly Latino schools. “Busing wasn’t the answer. The answer was quality education wherever you found it. We didn’t care if we got it in a tent or vacant lot in East Los Angeles,” Castro said.
He was reassigned to an office job and took five years to get his teaching job back.
Castro said of the three years of mandatory busing, “There was no integration. The Latino kids hung out together on the school grounds and the white kids in another section. They didn’t participate in activities after school because they had to get on the bus for the ride back.”
Peter James joined the fray in 1979 when a senior partner in the law firm defending the school district had a hip replacement operation. “I had to learn a lot about school segregation in a big hurry,” he said. “My wife and I had to make dates to see each other. My children were usually in bed when I got home, and they saw me more on television than they did in person.”
James, who still does legal work for the district, defends the current voluntary integration program. Though conceding that it is not perfect, he notes that it has resulted in the voluntary busing of about 60,000 students.
The Los Angeles Unified School District spends about $260 million a year on integration programs, including voluntary busing. Magnet schools offer specialized learning to 25,000 students. The Capacity Adjustment Program, in which students in overcrowded schools attend other campuses, has 18,000 participants. And, the Permit With Transportation program, which allows students to attend schools with a better ethnic mix, attracts another 17,000 students.
But Joseph H. Duff, an NAACP lawyer who worked on the case since 1977 and recently was elected president of the organization’s Los Angeles branch, said, “We clearly have not gained any desegregation in the district.”
He said the NAACP’s enthusiasm for the case began to falter in 1984 after internal personnel changes and after grants from private foundations dried up. “Once we had to go on our own, it became harder financially,” Duff said.
“I don’t think we made the point of what school integration really is,” Duff said. “It’s been successful elsewhere and what you get is not just busing. What you get are opportunities, a lot of energy is applied to schools, the teachers, administrators. Parents get more involved and there is better education.
“I feel very bad about the case because I have a strong conviction that this kind of an action drives the train of civil rights. And the degree with which you treat the children is a . . . measure of what you think about your future and who’s who in the community. These cases have significance far beyond just school integration. What we had here was a lesson in civics.”
KEY FIGURES IN DESEGREGATION CASE JUDGE PAUL EGLY The second judicial casualty in the 26-year-old case. After the state Supreme Court upheld Proposition 1, he quit the bench. JUDGE ALFRED GITELSON He ordered the school board to integrate the district. Later called the “busing judge,” he lost reelection. LAWYER JOSEPH H. DUFF Burned out as one of the NAACP’s attorneys, he went into private practice after 10 years on the case. LAWYER PETER JAMES He defended the school board’s desegregation plan in court. His life was so hectic that his children saw more of him on television than at home. PARTICIPANT ELNORA CROWDER She went door to door like an “Avon lady,” looking for a student to be named in the suit against the school district. PARTICIPANT HOWARD MILLER The former school board president became a symbol of pro-busing side and was recalled after a bitter reelection campaign. PARTICIPANT MARNESBA TACKETT She said Jordan High School’s boundary expanded as more black students moved into the area. After the NAACP suit was filed, she received threats. PARTICIPANT BOBBI FIEDLER The San Fernando Valley housewife founded Bustop and won election to Congress. She said the issue was not one of race, but of individual freedom. PARTICIPANT SAL CASTRO Lost his teaching job during student protests. A foe of busing, he said quality neighborhood education for minorities--"even in a vacant lot in East Los Angeles"--was the answer.