Swann v. Board of Education Board of Education v. Swann

Decision Date20 April 1971
Docket NumberNos. 281,349,CHARLOTTE-MECKLENBURG,s. 281
PartiesJames E. SWANN et al., Petitioners, v. BOARD OF EDUCATION et al.BOARD OF EDUCATION et al., Petitioners, v. James E. SWANN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 403 U.S. 912, 91 S.Ct. 2201.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, which includes the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, had more than 84,000 students in 107 schools in the 19681969 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, 88 S.Ct. 1689, 20 L.Ed.2d 716, which required school boards to 'come forward with a plan that promises realistically to work * * * now * * * until it is clear that stateimposed 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 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. Held:

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, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873, in 1954. P. 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. 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. 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. 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, 89 S.Ct. 1670, 23 L.Ed.2d 263, was properly followed by the lower courts in this case. Pp. 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 re-establish a dual system. Pp. 20 21 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 29—31.

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. 31—32.

4 Cir., 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.

Julius LeVonne Chambers, Charlotte, N.C., for James E. Swann et al.

Sol. Gen. Erwin N. Griswold, for the United States, amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

William J. Waggoner and Benjamin S. Horack, Charlotte, N.C., for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education et al.

James M. Nabrit, III, New York City, for James E. Swann et al.

Mr. Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to review important issues as to the duties of school authorities and the scope of powers of federal courts under this Court's mandates to eliminate racially separate public schools established and maintained by state action. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954) (Brown I).

This case and those argued with it1 arose in States having a long history of maintaining two sets of schools in a single school system deliberately operated to carry out a governmental policy to separate pupils in schools solely on the basis of race. That was what Brown v. Board of Education was all about. These cases present us with the problem of defining in more precise terms than heretofore the scope of the duty of school authorities and district courts in implementing Brown I and the mandate to eliminate dual systems and establish unitary systems at once. Meanwhile district courts and courts of appeals have struggled in hundreds of cases with a multitude and variety of problems under this Court's general directive. Understandably, in an area of evolving remedies, those courts had to improvise and experiment without detailed or specific guidelines. This Court, in Brown I, appropriately dealt with the large constitutional principles; other federal courts had to grapple with the flinty, intractable realities of day-to-day implementation of those constitutional commands. Their efforts, of necessity, embraced a process of 'trial and error,' and our effort to formulate guidelines must take into account their experience.


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, the 43d largest in the Nation, encompasses the city of Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The area is large—550 square miles—spanning roughly 22 miles east-west and 36 miles north-south. During the 19681969 school year the system served more than 84,000 pupils in 107 schools. Approximately 71% of the pupils were found to be white and 29% Negro. As of June 1969 there were approximately 24,000 Negro students in the system, of whom 21,000 attended schools within the city of Charlotte. Two-thirds of those 21,000—approximately 14,000 Negro students—attended 21 schools which were either totally Negro or more than 99% Negro.

This situation came about under a desegregation plan approved by the District Court at the commencement of the present litigation in 1965, 243 F.Supp. 667 (W.D.N.C.), aff'd, 369 F.2d 29 (CA4 1966), based upon geographic zoning with a free-transfer provision. The present proceedings were initiated in September 1968 by petitioner Swann's motion for further relief based on Green v. County School...

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