I have long known that Berkeley was one of the first cities of its size to voluntarily integrate its public schools in the late 1960s. This occurred about 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state-sponsored segregation was unconstitutional. The delay reflects the prevalence, in cities like Berkeley, of segregation that was not ordered by law but was instead the result of residential housing patterns. In Berkeley in the 1960s, few African-American families lived in the hills, and few white families lived in the West and South Berkeley flats. The schools at the time, particularly at the elementary level, reflected the demographics of their neighborhoods. That is, until the Berkeley school board voted in 1968 to implement a two-way busing plan to transport African-American students from the flats to the K-3 schools in the hills, and white students from the hills to the 4-6 schools in the flats.
I knew that this had occurred and I participated in this busing plan as a student in the early 1980s; I took the bus every day to Columbus (now Rosa Parks). But I never knew the story behind the integration of the Berkeley schools until I read, over Thanksgiving, the account of this effort in a book written by the Superintendent who shepherded the plan, Neil V. Sullivan. Sullivan wrote the book in 1969, just after implementing the controversial elementary school busing plan, so his writing has a tangible immediacy. He was not crowing about the success of integration upon reflection; he was urgently advocating for integration in the moment, hopeful and confident it would work but nervous enough to continue making the case throughout the book. (The book poignantly includes a foreword by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., written less than a year before he was assassinated.)
Sullivan’s methods, described in gripping detail, were a model for a school district administration’s engagement with the community on sensitive and critical issues. Berkeley residents can be proud of our city’s historic decision to integrate its schools, but we should not presume that it was easy to accomplish. Sullivan and his allies faced literally thousands of community members at massive school board meetings (held in the Berkeley Community Theater), including many residents who were bitterly opposed to integration and, in some cases, terrified of it. Sullivan never demonized his opponents, and he recognized that many parents, even those who supported integration, had legitimate concerns about what form the busing regime would take, how much it would cost, and what it would mean for their children.
To my mind, Sullivan was a civil rights hero. He bravely fought for racial justice, and did so in a way that effected real, lasting change. (And not just in Berkeley, by the way.) In addition to the fascinating history, what struck me, though, was how far we still have to go. The immediate challenge of Sullivan’s generation was to integrate the schools. But, as Sullivan recognized, integration was a step forward, not a panacea. The challenges we face today are different, but no less complicated, and no less demanding of visionary leadership.
The book is out of print and I couldn’t even find an image of the cover online, so I just took a picture of it. It’s available at the Berkeley public library, and I also have a copy I’m happy to lend out to anyone. Email me if you want to borrow it.