Black Mayors Try To End Mandatory School Busing

ST. LOUIS - Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. does not consider himself an enemy of civil rights - even if other black leaders in his city do.

His pedigree is impeccable: He grew up in a family absorbed by civil-rights battles and headed by a politician father who led boycotts against white-owned businesses. At college, Bosley Jr. flirted with militancy and headed the campus Black Student Alliance chapter. Six months ago, he was elected St. Louis' first black mayor, a symbolic prize that long eluded black aspirants in a city calcified by racial divisions.

Yet the 38-year-old coalition-builder has stunned local civil-rights leaders and many black parents by calling for an end to St. Louis' voluntary school desegregation program - a system that buses 14,000 minority students to suburban schools.

Bosley is among a growing number of black mayors and political leaders who are taking steps to scuttle court-enforced busing and desegregation plans. The 40-year battle to integrate America's schools, they contend, has ground down into a Pyrrhic victory that offers only faint progress for minority students and drains resources from inner-city communities and public schools.

"Some people are content to stand in concrete," Bosley says. "But there are a lot of black parents who think it's time for a change."

Black disillusionment with integration is not new; but the rise of young leaders willing to publicly abandon a core goal of the civil-rights era is transforming a distant, academic debate into a fractious policy issue in cities like Cleveland and Denver. That transformation is threatening to divide leaders along generational lines and is setting black families against each other.

With the retirement of Los Angeles' Tom Bradley and Detroit's Coleman Young - the last of the first wave of black mayors whose success was steeped in civil-rights themes - younger elected officials like Bosley are staking out their own path.

"It's a fundamental shift in how you tackle urban problems," said Dennis Judd, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. "These mayors are saying that integration is not necessarily the answer, that for cities to work, you have to rebuild basic social institutions."

Ronald Walters, a political science professor at Howard University, says: "It's become an issue of practicality. Integration is still a goal, but since cities are unable to move all their students, they're beginning to look at ways to educate African-American students where they live."

Mayors who take that path have met with mixed results. In Cleveland, a federal judge has agreed to consider a plan, supported by Mayor Michael White, to phase out busing and replace it with a comprehensive overhaul of city schools. And in Seattle, Mayor Norm Rice has been the point man in an effort to relax the city's busing program and replace it with more school choice and expanded use of magnet-school programs.

But both mayors have carefully avoided working toward an immediate ban on busing. The perils of moving too fast became evident recently when Denver Mayor Wellington Webb was rebuffed by a federal judge when he and other black and Latino leaders sought to intervene in his city's busing order and bring it to settlement.

Yet many believe black mayors stand the best chance among any public officials of finding alternatives to decades-old busing plans.

"Only an African-American mayor can go up against busing and come away with respect," said Donna Good, an aide to Webb. "It's like (former Republican President) Nixon going to China."

Inner-city parents are taking sides. Sandra Hollis, mother of two elementary school-age boys who are bused an hour each day to the south suburbs, wants "neighborhood schools that work." Hollis, a police department computer worker, has joined a parents group planning to petition U.S. District Judge George Gunn Jr. to end busing.

Many other black parents defend busing, in the words of Ruby Connors, as "the only way my children will make it in this world." Three of Connors' sons passed through the busing program and attend Purdue University. Connors, 48, whose two younger sons are bused to a suburban high school, wishes she could take back the vote she cast for Bosley last April.

The growing enmity between the new mayors and old-line civil-rights leaders is not inevitable. Mayor White of Cleveland has built a consensus with NAACP officials over that city's desegregation program.

Cleveland has advantages that St. Louis lacks. Cleveland's local NAACP organization, unlike St. Louis', is dominated by younger members amenable to new approaches in education. And it is run by George Forbes, a former City Council president practiced in the art of compromise.

"What helped us is that the new blood (in the local NAACP branch) wanted the court case ended," he said. "And luckily, the national office didn't lean on us. That made it easier to . . . come up with something we all could agree on."

The compromise, a plan that would minimize but not eliminate busing and put more emphasis on magnet schools and other community choices, was also aided by the city's adoption of a comprehensive plan to refashion the school system. Backed by city leaders, the plan has been approved by federal Judge Frank Battisti - although his desegregation order still stands.

"Our plan made it easier for the judge to agree to rethink his order," says Chris Carmody, White's chief education aide. "We feel it's only a matter of time before we get a complete settlement."