The Common Good

Riding the Bus to Equality

Every morning at 7:15, the doors of our school open wide to a line of bus riders ready to come inside. "Hello, Jaheem. Hi, Kiara. Hey, Imani. Hope you're having a good day, Omar," I call out as the students walk past me to the cafeteria for breakfast. I stand at the doors for a moment and watch the big, yellow buses puff their diesel exhaust and chug their way to the garage until it's time for their afternoon run.

Is there a more universal symbol for public schools than a big, yellow school bus?

There was a time in the 1940s when the school buses were not so universal. In fact, the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit began with a school bus in South Carolina. I was getting my masters degree before I took a civil rights course and learned of Levi Pearson and his determination to get his children and all the other African-American students seats on school buses. The first chapter of Richard Kluger's monumental book Simple Justice, which is about the Brown decision, outlines the steps to the case.

In 1947, about 74 percent of Clarendon County, S.C.'s 8,906 public school students were black. There were 30 school buses in the county. All of them were used for white students. When the African-American community asked the superintendent of schools to provide bus transportation for their children, he explained that black citizens didn't pay much in taxes and it wasn't fair for white citizens to pay for buses for black children.

So on July 28, 1947, Levi Pearson, a farmer, legally petitioned the superintendent, asking for school buses for African-American children. His three children had to walk to school each day while their white counterparts in school buses passed them by in clouds of dust. The petition was met with months of silence.

On March 16, 1948, attorneys Harold Boulware and Thurgood Marshall filed a brief in United States District Court in Florence County, S.C., asking the court to prohibit the Clarendon County School District from "making a distinction on account of race and color." It was the case in which the NAACP moved from seeking equality in segregated schools to seeking an end to segregation. It was the case that said state-sponsored segregation was a breach of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Pearson v. County Board of Education would eventually evolve into Briggs v. Elliott and then into Brown v. Board of Education.

On a day when two of my third-grade girls were suspended from their bus for a week after fighting each other, I felt compelled tell them a story about buses.

I want my students to know the courage and commitment of people like Levi Pearson so they can find their own dedication and determination to build a better community. I want them to have schools where theyre encouraged to be all that they can become. I want them to stay on the bus and keep moving forward.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

School bus interior photo, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

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