Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ.,
402 U.S. 1 (1971)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 402 U.S. 1 (1971)

Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education

No. 281

Argued October 12, 1970

Decided April 20, 1971*

402 U.S. 1


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which includes the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, had more than 84,000 students in 107 schools in the 1968-1969 school year. Approximately 29% (24,000) of the pupils were Negro, about 14,000 of whom attended 21 schools that were at least 99% Negro. This resulted from a desegregation plan approved by the District Court in 1965, at the commencement of this litigation. In 1968, petitioner Swann moved for further relief based on Green v. County School Board, 391 U. S. 430, which required school boards to

"come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work . . . now . . . until it is clear that state-imposed segregation has been completely removed."

The District Court ordered the school board in April 1969 to provide a plan for faculty and student desegregation. Finding the board's submission unsatisfactory, the District Court appointed an expert to submit a desegregation plan. In February 1970, the expert and the board presented plans, and the court adopted the board's plan, as modified, for the junior and senior high schools, and the expert's proposed plan for the elementary schools. The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's order as to faculty desegregation and the secondary school plans,

Page 402 U. S. 2

but vacated the order respecting elementary schools, fearing that the provisions for pairing and grouping of elementary schools would unreasonably burden the pupils and the board. The case was remanded to the District Court for reconsideration and submission of further plans. This Court granted certiorari and directed reinstatement of the District Court's order pending further proceedings in that court. On remand the District Court received two new plans, and ordered the board to adopt a plan, or the expert's plan would remain in effect. After the board "acquiesced" in the expert's plan, the District Court directed that it remain in effect.


1. Today's objective is to eliminate from the public schools all vestiges of state-imposed segregation that was held violative of equal protection guarantees by Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U. S. 483, in 1954. P. 402 U. S. 15.

2. In default by the school authorities of their affirmative obligation to proffer acceptable remedies, the district courts have broad power to fashion remedies that will assure unitary school systems. P. 402 U. S. 16.

3. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not restrict or withdraw from the federal courts their historic equitable remedial powers. The proviso in 42 U.S.C. § 2000c-6 was designed simply to foreclose any interpretation of the Act as expanding the existing powers of the federal courts to enforce the Equal Protection Clause. Pp. 402 U. S. 16-18.

4. Policy and practice with regard to faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities are among the most important indicia of a segregated system, and the first remedial responsibility of school authorities is to eliminate invidious racial distinctions in those respects. Normal administrative practice should then produce schools of like quality, facilities, and staffs. Pp. 402 U. S. 18-19.

5. The Constitution does not prohibit district courts from using their equity power to order assignment of teachers to achieve a particular degree of faculty desegregation. United States v. Montgomery County Board of Education, 395 U. S. 225, was properly followed by the lower courts in this case. Pp. 402 U. S. 19-20.

6. In devising remedies to eliminate legally imposed segregation, local authorities and district courts must see to it that future school construction and abandonment are not used and do not serve to perpetuate or reestablish a dual system. Pp. 402 U. S. 20-21.

Page 402 U. S. 3

7. Four problem areas exist on the issue of student assignment:

(1) Racial quotas. The constitutional command to desegregate schools does not mean that every school in the community must always reflect the racial composition of the system as a whole; here the District Court's very limited use of the racial ratio -- not as an inflexible requirement, but as a starting point in shaping a remedy -- was within its equitable discretion. Pp. 402 U. S. 22-25.

(2) One-race schools. While the existence of a small number of one-race, or virtually one-race, schools does not, in itself, denote a system that still practices segregation by law, the court should scrutinize such schools and require the school authorities to satisfy the court that the racial composition does not result from present or past discriminatory action on their part. Pp. 402 U. S. 25-26.

An optional majority-to-minority transfer provision has long been recognized as a useful part of a desegregation plan, and to be effective such arrangement must provide the transferring student free transportation and available space in the school to which he desires to move. Pp. 402 U. S. 26-27.

(3) Attendance zones. The remedial altering of attendance zones is not, as an interim corrective measure, beyond the remedial powers of a district court. A student assignment plan is not acceptable merely because it appears to be neutral, for such a plan may fail to counteract the continuing effects of past school segregation. The pairing and grouping of noncontiguous zones is a permissible tool; judicial steps going beyond contiguous zones should be examined in light of the objectives to be sought. No rigid rules can be laid down to govern conditions in different localities. Pp. 402 U. S. 27-29.

(4) Transportation. The District Court's conclusion that assignment of children to the school nearest their home serving their grade would not effectively dismantle the dual school system is supported by the record, and the remedial technique of requiring bus transportation as a tool of school desegregation was within that court's power to provide equitable relief. An objection to transportation of students may have validity when the time or distance of travel is so great as to risk either the health of the children or significantly impinge on the educational process; limits on travel time will vary with many factors, but probably with none more than the age of the students. Pp. 402 U. S. 29-31.

Page 402 U. S. 4

8. Neither school authorities nor district courts are constitutionally required to make year-by-year adjustments of the racial composition of student bodies once a unitary system has been achieved. Pp. 402 U. S. 31-32.

431 F.2d 138, affirmed as to those parts in which it affirmed the District Court's judgment. The District Court's order of August 7, 1970, is also affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 402 U. S. 5

Primary Holding

The Fourteenth Amendment permits the systematic use of buses to convey children of different races across district lines to further the goal of integrating public schools.


Consolidating school districts in Charlotte with those in the surrounding area left de facto segregation in place, since most African-American families lived in the city, while most white students lived in the outer areas. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education had complied with all court-imposed integration measures, however, so it argued that it had fulfilled its constitutional duties. When the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought a case on behalf of children from 10 African-American families, the trial court initially agreed with the Board. It found no need for the Board to take overt steps to enhance racial diversity, as long as the Board did not undermine it.

This view was rejected by the Supreme Court in the case of Green v. County School Board, when the Court ruled that school boards should take any affirmative steps that were necessary to achieve integration. As a result, this case was brought again. The federal district court judge reviewed a series of busing plans by the Board over several months, weighing its proposals against those by opposing experts from Rhode Island. Despite intricate reorganization of district lines, the Board could not produce a plan that could guarantee anything more than that each of its schools would be between two and 36 percent African-American. One of the plaintiffs' experts, Dr. John Finger, proposed a system that was even more complex than the Board's plan but would produce greater diversity. The federal district court judge approved the Finger Plan, which required additional busing of African-American children and the creation of satellite zones.

A deeply divided Fourth Circuit decided that the Finger Plan should be enforced for junior high and high schools but remanded for further consideration regarding elementary school students. On remand, the district court judge decided to stick with the Finger Plan for elementary school students as well.



  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • William Orville Douglas
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

Despite the unanimous opinion, the Court struggled to reach a consensus on the issue. Burger revised his opinion six times, gradually strengthening the Court's approval of the Finger Plan each time. Justices Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, and Marshall supported the Plan from the outset and urged Burger to make a bold statement in its support, while Justices Black and Burger opposed it. The three remaining Justices (Stewart, White, and Blackmun) shared Burger's cautious, limited approach to the problem. As a result, the opinion is somewhat opaque and diffident, although it became the basis for similar busing initiatives throughout the South.

Case Commentary

After Brown v. Board, many school districts struggled to find means of addressing racial balance that were not unconstitutional themselves because of using race to treat groups differently. Despite the complex strategies that were devised, de facto segregation in schools remains a problem to the current day. Charlotte was viewed as the model for desegregation in Southern cities for decades after the decision, but it ultimately moved away from the Plan to a looser, more hands-off approach. This was because white parents objected to the denial of their children from magnet schools that had race-based quotas. A federal district court ended the mandatory busing program in the late 1990s, and the Supreme Court declined review.

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