Irene McCabe and her battle against busing

AP photo

Pontiac firemen work to put out the flames in school bus after opponents of forced busing destroyed 10 buses and damaged three others with dynamite.

On a hot steamy August evening in Pontiac in 1971,  a few days before the start of a new school year, 10 school buses exploded in a ball of  flames that lit up the night sky as well as the ugly side of a national controversy.

At about 10 o’clock that night, at least two persons slipped through a hole cut into a six-foot wire fence surrounding an unguarded northside bus depot. They placed dynamite atop the fuel tanks of six of 13 buses parked along the fence, lit the fuses and ran. The resulting blast destroyed 10 school buses, damaged three more and focused national attention on Pontiac, an industrial town of 84,000 outside of Detroit.

The divisive busing issue had simmered in the city for nearly 20 months, but there had been no violence until the bombing. Pontiac Mayor Robert F. Jackson said he hoped that the “bombing would wake up the people of Pontiac to the fact that they have unsolicited help—radicals—that they don’t want.”

UPI photo
The charred and smoldering remains of one of the 10 school buses destroyed in the bombing.

      “Pontiac is the new South,” an unnamed state legislator said. “I’m frankly ashamed to say right now that I am a citizen of this city”.

In the eerie light of burning buses, emotions which had simmered beneath the surface of the city came to a sudden boil. Residents standing across from the burning inferno shook their heads in disbelief. Some cheered, others cried.

To be sure, there was more to the controversy than mere bigotry — many were truly concerned with maintaining traditional neighborhood schools — but few would argue that Pontiac’s racial situation was not a major reason for the strife.

Almost everyone who lived or worked in Pontiac was a blue-collar production worker. General Motors’ Fisher Body and Pontiac auto-assembly plants employed 35,000 residents. Pontiac’s black population had risen to nearly 30 percent in the late 1960’s and black enrollment in the city’s schools doubled between 1957 and 1967.

Patrick Tifer, leader of the American Nazi Party, is arrested at an anti-busing rally in Pontiac.

      Most of the black population was concentrated in the city’s south side, where many neighborhoods resembled the worst of big city ghettos. Although a few blacks had integrated some neighborhoods in the near east and western parts of the city, the rest of Pontiac was virtually all white. As in most industrial towns, many of the whites had migrated from the South in search of better jobs, bringing with them their southern values and prejudices. Pontiac’s racial problems intensified after the Detroit riot in July 1967. Despite an open occupancy law passed in the city, the schools and the neighborhoods remained racially polarized.

Early in 1969, Elbert L. Hatchett, then president of the Oakland County NAACP, filed suit in Federal Court complaining that Pontiac schools were deliberately segregated. Schools were either 90 percent white or 90 percent black.

Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, the only black jurist on Detroit’s district bench, received the case assignment. While the case languished in the courts, race relations in the city worsened. Resentment by blacks over the location of a proposed new $19 million high school in an all-white neighborhood caused tensions to escalate. Confrontations ranged from a “lock-in” of the school board by militants, to sit-ins by blacks at the city’s two high schools. The school board finally agreed to a compromise by putting the new school near downtown.

In February 1970, Judge Keith, having ruled that Pontiac’s school board “intentionally” perpetuated segregation, ordered the district to bus pupils to achieve integration by the following fall. Keith, in response to school board claims that it had adopted six resolutions since 1948 aimed at achieving racial balance, then declared: “Pronouncement of good intentions with nothing more amounts to monumental hypocrisy.”

Wearing a shirt that reads “Bus judges, not our children, Irene McCabe marches up Woodward during a NAG anti-busing protest.

      School officials filed an appeal and succeeded in delaying the busing order. Fighting between students at the two high schools broke out sporadically, and Mayor Jackson imposed a curfew for minors.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Keith’s decision. The Pontiac board then voted to appeal the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, but agreed to implement a busing plan.

Opponents continued efforts to block busing by petitioning Congress to pass a law that would ban the practice. The movement was spearheaded by a local homeowners group called the National Action Group (NAG), which claimed more than 20,000 supporters with 71 chapters in Michigan and 10 chapters in other states. NAG, led by a fiery 36-year-old housewife, Irene McCabe, continued to fight court ordered integration. McCabe rode the tide of resistance to national attention by proclaiming, “There are millions of little people in this country who want to preserve the neighborhood school and all it means to the American way of life.”

McCabe insisted that she and her followers were not against integration, only against busing to achieve it. “I went to school with colored kids myself,” she said.

NAG claimed to have no affliation with the Ku Klux Klan or other hate groups. Her popular NAG sweatshirts proclaimed her distrust for the courts: “Bus Judges, Not Our Children!”

Members kept their children home from school, staged sit-downs along bus routes, enrolled their children in private and parochial schools. After the rear-end assembly of a bus fell off in the first week of busing, NAG added unsafe buses to its list of reasons why parents should demand an end to school busing. “I can’t in good conscience tell parents, black or white, to send their children to school where friction is so great that they’re going to the hospital day after day,” insisted NAG attorney, L. Brooks Patterson. “And they’re riding buses unfit to be on the highway.”

William Waterman, an attorney for the NAACP, said Pontiac’s black community had watched NAG grow into a “huge and terrifying dragon of racism”.

“I can honestly understand the white resentment to busing,” he said. “But don’t they see that it’s really not busing we’re talking about? The real issue is equal — and I can’t stress that word enough — equal education.”

For-sale signs mushroomed in the white neighborhoods. A record 600 homes went up for sale, one third more than at the same time a year earlier. Most of the white exodus took place at the start of busing in 1971 when the district lost 11 percent of its students. Since then the net loss has stablized to about 1 percent a year.

NAACP attorney William Waterman said he could underestand white resentment of busing but called NAG a “huge and terrifying dragon of racism.”

The school term opened on time, despite damaged buses and the initial boycott by parents who resisted busing their children. School officials and PTA quietly worked to keep peace between warring groups. Said housewife Lucille McNaughton, who headed a biracial committee to make integration work: “The vast majority in Pontiac are in the middle. They want to do what’s right, but they’re not sure what that is. We feel if we stress the positive we can counteract some of the bad publicity and really give our children a better education.” The Supreme Court refused to hear the busing case appwal, leaving Judge Keith’s busing order unchanged.

In March of 1972, the feisty McCabe and five other NAG members began a 44-day march from Pontiac to Washington to pressure congressional leaders to support an anti-busing constitional amendment. “Our cause is to retain freedom, just like George Washington,” said McCabe.

Residents along the route joined the march and on April 27 a weary, footsore Irene McCabe plodded into Washington D.C. Despite a noticeable limp, McCabe danced her first steps into Washington.

But the afternoon rally her supporters predicted would attract 30,000 drew only 1,000. At the steps of the U.S. Capitol Michigan Sen. Robert P. Griffin, Rep. William Broomfield, and House minority leader Rep. Gerald Ford greeted the NAG marchers. The following day she met with President Richard Nixon’s advisor, John Ehrlichman, to discuss a constitutional amendment to ban forced busing.

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace would later ride the antibusing tide that began in Pontiac to a solid victory that fall in Michigan’s Democratic Presidential primary.

But the school buses continued to roll. The plan to ban forced busing failed. The national politicians disappeared from Pontiac, and the spotlight shifted elsewhere. The courts ordered 70 other school districts around the country to bus students to achieve integration with varied results.

The Pontiac bombers, later identified as Ku Klux Klansmen, were convicted and sent to federal prison. The National Action Group disbanded and a divorced and disillusioned Irene McCabe went on to become a successful realtor in her home town.

There is no loud battle any more. Many black parents gave up on busing and instead began to fight for improving their neighborhood schools. Some claim the white exodus may have been beneficial, since it helped bring stability to the community. The disappearance of the most bitter and most vocal opponents of busing, it is believed, has moderated the atmosphere for those who remained.

As educator William Neff said five years after the controvery: “I think busing brought two divergent groups of people together and enabled them to get to know one another, to live together,to respect each other, to learn to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But did it bring about quality education? I won’t say it did.”

AP photo
McCabe addresses and anti-busing rally in Washington at the end of her long protest march from Pontiac. Supporters had predicted as many as 30,000 would attend but were disappointed by a turnout of only 1,000.

By Patricia Zacharias

/ The Detroit News