White opposition to forced busing scared Milwaukee’s leaders, who created a very different plan in response to a federal court order to desegregate the schools. The plan launched in 1976 allowed white students to chose integration at magnet schools with specialized programs, while putting the burden of forced busing on black students, as research by Lois Quinn and the Metropolitan Integration Research Center documented a few years later. In the early 1980s Howard Fuller began building opposition to the disruptive and disproportionate burden placed on black families and children with the supposedly “peaceful” desegregation plan implemented in Milwaukee. His later doctoral thesis at Marquette University helped blow a hole in sanitized and misleading reporting by the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel, which supported the busing program. Maps that I included in a study expanding on Quinn’ research showed students from individual neighborhood schools were being bused to as many as 100 separate schools across the city.
Subsequent research by James Kenneth Nelsen, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, offered a clear description of how the system worked:
There was no room in the [Black] school[s] — [they were] usually overcrowded to begin with…Black students had to move to accommodate whites. Some African American parents complained about waiting lists to get into what had been their neighborhood schools… Now that their schools had more desirable programs [for white students], they could no longer attend them.
It was not until the late 1990s that David Bennett, a deputy to former MPS Superintendent Lee McMurrin admitted that the forced busing plan he and McMurrin developed was built around “white benefit,” namely, the goal of reducing “white flight.” Bennett’s stunning confirmation produced exactly one story in the local press, at which point the editors and the rest of Milwaukee’s establishment “moved on.”
While the Boston and Milwaukee busing plans were designed very differently, it’s clear neither worked. So when Kamala Harris visits Milwaukee and Wisconsin, will the Journal Sentinel — or anyone in the media — step up and ask her to reconcile her rose-colored vision of busing with the reality of its experience in Wisconsin?