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Members of the family who sued to integrate the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools 25 years ago call for deep social changes.


Vera and Darius Swann haven't given up on the dream of racial integration that led them to a federal court case that rocked Charlotte and started busing throughout America.

But the Swanns no longer believe court orders are effective tools, and they say true integration will take much deeper change than they once thought.``Basically, I still believe in integration,' said Darius Swann, who now lives in Atlanta. ``Ultimately, we have to have an integrated society for us to survive.

``But I do not see it being practiced right now,' Swann said during an interview Thursday. ``I feel black people have made huge efforts to try to integrate society, and we have not been successful. So we feel that any energies we have to devote to that should be directed at improving things in our community and hoping that integration will come.'

The Swanns sued so their son could attend the school closest to home, even if it was (then) all-white Seversville Elementary.

Twenty-five years ago Saturday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on their case, ordering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to let black and white students attend school together, even if it took crosstown busing.

The case of Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg ignited instant national controversy when Chief Justice Warren Burger announced the ruling for a unanimous court on April 20, 1971.

Its key provision: For the first time, the court sanctioned the use of busing to enforce desegregation.

In the weeks that followed court-ordered busing, a number of white Charlotte parents hurled rocks at buses, some black and white students fought, and small riots closed some schools for several days. But after a time, the rioting moved to Northern cities such as Boston. In Charlotte, opposition waned, and by 1974 community leaders and residents forged a plan that made desegregation fair and effective.

``We've seen things written up, where Charlotte was pictured as one of the most hopeful situations in the country,' Swann said. ``If we had anything to do with that, we're gratified. But we hear from friends that there's been regression.'

Since the court order in Charlotte, numerous controversies have dogged desegregation, from school board battles over student reassignments to the opening of dozens of magnet schools. Many parents oppose busing, and some turn to private schools. Still, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been cited for 25 years as one of the few examples of a large school system where desegregation worked.

The Swanns were Presbyterian missionaries in India in the early 1960s. On returning to Charlotte, they became upset at continued segregation, much different from the multiracial atmosphere their children knew in India.

In 1965, the Swanns filed suit so James, then a first-grader, could attend Seversville instead of all-black Biddleville Elementary, farther from their home.

But James Swann, 38, whose name is on the Supreme Court case, never got to attend Seversville. In 1967, the family left Charlotte, moving to New York, then Hawaii as the case slowly moved through the courts.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled, the Swanns had returned to India. When they came back to the United States, they spent 13 years in the Washington area before moving to Atlanta in 1984. The Swanns retired in 1993.

``It was the right thing to do at that moment,' Swann says. ``I think it was important that the segregation system be challenged. It has not brought all the change we hoped and prayed for. But it has made a good deal of change.'

To David Goldfield, UNC Charlotte history professor, the legacy of the ruling is Charlotte's explosive growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

``The process was ultimately more important than the decision itself,' Goldfield said. ``The issue was so energy-draining, so difficult, that its solution gave Charlotte a tremendous amount of confidence.

``People from other places come here and say everything that Charlotte tries, it seems to do. I think that can-do attitude comes directly from the process that followed the court ruling.'

In many of America's large urban areas - including Atlanta - public schools have become largely racial and ethnic minority schools after decades of white flight, combined with waning federal enforcement and wider parent opposition to busing, among whites and blacks. That's why, 25 years after the Supreme Court case that bears his name, James Swann had little choice but to enroll his 10-year-old son in an all-black public school.

The irony isn't as keen as it might have been years ago.

``The way I thought before is that we really needed integration for blacks to feel there was one society,' Swann said. ``At this point I think I am more concerned about the quality of the schools. I do not find people on either side much concerned about that (integration) here in Atlanta. I haven't turned my back on the ideal. There are more pressing things we must do now.'

Distributed by The Associated Press.


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