On this day in 1971: KKK bombs empty Pontiac buses set to racially integrate schools

By: - August 30, 2021 5:51 am

School buses bombed by the KKK in Pontiac | Wayne State University photo

On Aug. 30, 1971, 10 idled Pontiac School District buses were destroyed by Ku Klux Klan members. Dynamite was the weapon.  

Black- and silver-haired Kevin Davidson, 61, remembers it like yesterday. 

He was 11 when his African-American family moved to Pontiac from Detroit 50 years ago. They lived in the newly constructed and predominantly Black Newman Court public housing development in Pontiac at the time. He recalls that when they ventured outside of their immediate community some whites would verbally attack them with the N-word.  

Kevin Davidson in 1971 | Kevin Davidson photo

“They saw it as a sort of invasion [of Blacks]. There was a lot of racial tension there,” said Davidson about the greater Pontiac community. 

At the time, about 30% of Pontiac’s 83,000 residents were Black and most of the schools were segregated. Some were essentially all white. 

KKK members were foes of public school busing designed to achieve race integration. Parent activist Irene McCabe and attorney L. Brooks Patterson, both white, fought the busing concept ordered by U.S. District Judge Damon Keith on Feb. 17, 1970, in Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Black students.

Keith, an African American from Detroit, cited the race discrimination challenge at the time.

“When the power to act is available, failure to take the necessary steps so as to negate or alleviate a situation which is harmful is as wrong as is taking affirmative steps to advance that situation,” Keith wrote.

Then-state Rep. Arthur Law (D-Pontiac) called on parents to boycott schools to protest Keith’s order.

“If I were a parent of a school-aged child in Pontiac, I would refuse to obey this order,” Law told a rally of about 2,000 people outside the Pontiac school board office on Aug. 28, 1971.

McCabe, then a mother of school-aged children who died in 2004, also pushed back on the Keith order. 

“I know how it’s been,” she said at the time. “I know it’s a lie when Judge Damon Keith says we have legal segregation. We have an open housing law in Pontiac, and that’s all you need.”

One of the bombers was Robert Miles, a Howell resident and former KKK grand dragon. The FBI said that his Mountain Church of Jesus Christ the Savior had been the scene of Sunday potluck dinners and cross-burnings, according to Detroit Free Press reporting in 1971. In May 1973, Miles and four other men were convicted in United States District Court for their role in the incident. Miles died in 1992. 

Patterson, a conservative Republican, later was elected Oakland County prosecutor and then Oakland County executive. Both Keith and Patterson died in 2019.

Former Oakland County Commissioner Jeff Kingzett, 58, is white and grew up in Pontiac, attending desegregated schools during the 1970s. He told the Advance that the racial integration effort was good for the community and helped to strengthen the city.

“The biggest difference was that I had new people to be friends with. … We were all just kids,” he said. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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