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On this day in 1972: Michigan anti-busing activist rallies in the nation’s capital

By: - April 27, 2022 3:01 am

Irene McCabe (center) and fellow marchers | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

On April 27, 1972, Pontiac anti-busing activist Irene McCabe arrived in Washington, D.C,. to demonstrate her opposition to public school efforts across the nation to racially integrate classrooms with white and Black students to achieve equality in resource distribution.

There, McCabe’s National Action Group caravanned in automobiles and were met with eight members who walked 120 miles from Richmond, Va. Signing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” they rallied with several hundred others on the National Mall and called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban public school busing. 

The contingent was greeted by several members of Michigan’s congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin (R-Traverse City), and U.S. Reps. Gerald Ford (R-Grand Rapids) and William Broomfield (R-Royal Oak). 

President Richard Nixon took to the airwaves in March of that year and stated: “I am opposed to busing for the purpose of achieving racial balance in our schools. I have spoken out against busing scores of times over many years. And I believe most Americans — white and Black — share that view.”

Irene McCabe’s bus headed to Washington, D.C. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

He furthermore called on Congress to adopt “reasonable national standards for school desegregation” that would use busing as a last resort while “protecting the right of a community to maintain neighborhood schools.”

In August 1971, 10 idled Pontiac School District buses were destroyed with dynamite by Ku Klux Klan members. 

At the time, about 30% of Pontiac’s 83,000 residents were Black. Most of the schools were segregated; some were essentially all white. 

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

“I know how it’s been,” McCabe, a mother of school-aged children, 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.”

Irene McCabe and fellow marchers | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

During the Capitol Hill visit, the rally was in the Sylvan Theater at the Washington Monument.

“I didn’t expect many people,” said McCabe as reported by the Detroit Free Press. “… These are working people. Most of them can’t afford to lose a day’s pay, but some of them came anyway.”

Patterson welcomed those who came to see McCabe.

“I congratulate those who came and chastise those who didn’t,” he said. “This hillside should have been crowded with your neighbors and friends.”

McCabe died in 2004. Patterson later was elected Oakland County prosecutor and then Oakland County executive as a Republican. Both Keith and Patterson died in 2019.

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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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