Sid Thompson: A Historic Look at School Integration and Busing

LAUSD’s first African American superintendent recalls the reaction of schools and families to the possibility of federally mandated busing, integration.

During the second presidential debates earlier this summer, Senator Kamala Harris cited her experiences as a product of school desegregation in the early 1970s. By doing so, she acknowledged a long-shelved but hardly forgotten aspect of the nation’s social, educational, and racial history. 

Sid Thompson, a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Center X, was a principal at Crenshaw High School during the time of the possibility of a federal mandate on busing to integrate public schools. In an interview last fall, he shared his observations of students, families, and his colleagues in the historic – and perpetual – debate over reorganizing the way that public education is provided in order to create a semblance of racial equality.

Thompson, who later became the first African American superintendent of LAUSD, serving in that post from 1991 to 1996 – encompassing the period of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots that gave birth to UCLA’s Center X. 

In this interview, Thompson described the ways that Los Angeles schools dealt with the pros and cons of busing, how some teachers avoided the perceived threat of working at an inner-city school, and how ordinary citizens – not lawmakers – changed the course of public education in profound but no less controversial ways. 

How did L.A. schools and administration view integration overall?

Certainly, when you talk about integration, you talk about human beings being together… to say that it’s not an easy thing is putting it mildly. But if it’s going to work at all, there has to be some measure of agreement between all of the participants – as much as you can get. You’re never going to get anywhere near 100 percent. The staff that handled integration for the district had four relatively senior administrators and it had a lot of support people, so it wasn’t a small operation. I always got the feeling that they ended up trying to say, ‘Okay, we want it to work, we realize it’s a human endeavor.’ We never got the feeling that they were [pushing] anything, but they were definitely forcing the district to take some steps. That would be the best way to put it.

Now, I hasten to add that the district operates through the Board of Education – seven elected members. At that particular time, maybe one had experience in the field of education but the rest were laymen. Each one had their own view and they made policy. Board members make policy, superintendents carry it out. You can just imagine that when we were talking about court-ordered integration, [there] was the fear that was going to happen. And that implied mandatory busing, kids going to different schools and the whole thing. When that came about, you can just imagine seven board members, some of whom were anti-busing from the gate, even though they were moderate to liberal in their other feelings about education. But on that issue, there were some very sharp lines drawn. It was not likely that they were going to [enforce] something that would be an anathema for the people they represented. 

How did students and their families view busing and its desired effect, integration?

We have 19 other cities in the school district, so it was not just the city of L.A. – it’s bigger than that… from one part of the district to another from the LA Harbor to the northern part of the school system is 65 miles. Sixty-five miles of housing, different enclaves – all kinds of things happen within 65 miles. And if you want to integrate those schools, you’re going to have to ship these kids – and I say ‘ship,’ because that’s the way it was going to be – they would have to travel sometimes for an hour to an hour-and-a-half in order to go to one side of the district to another.

And, when all is said and done … it wasn’t the problem of mixing races – that is an issue that nobody wants to name openly but that is really the heart of it. It meant then that these parents and the board members who were against ‘forced busing,’ when it comes down to that, they were okay with African American kids coming to them. They didn’t like it but that was okay.

The biggest change we made was because we had space – the White population was not increasing in numbers to match the openings we had at schools. When it came to moving kids and integrating, the movement was one way. It was the African American and Hispanic youngsters moving from the central city to the suburbs. They called it ‘permit with transportation,’ a voluntary program. The kids didn’t have to do it – if they wanted to stay in their own school in the ghetto or in the barrio, they could do that. 

A lot of parents who thought the education was better in other schools wanted their kids transported. As a result, we were moving pretty young kids – in some cases, kindergarteners. We were moving them an hour’s ride to another school, to have an integrated experience. I remember going out to some of those bus stops after I had moved up to associate superintendent. It was early in the morning, dark, and we had all these little ones [being bused].

We had elementary schools that had 2,800 kids in them. When I was principal at Crenshaw, I had 3,800 on the campus. Kids were just numbers. So, any chance that we could get them to other places where it was a lot more reasonable, more humane, we were supportive of that. Those of us who were administrators in the central city saw that as a good thing to ease the burden of all those numbers and to give the kids other experiences.

Apart from the busing issue, what was the prevailing attitude in schools regarding integration?

I’ve gotten a little cynical of these things that are supposed to be solutions [toward] integration. Those board members … were terrified that one of those judges was going to order us to [integrate schools]. It became a thing of… looking at alternatives and in order to keep the judge at bay … doing things voluntarily. We even said we would integrate the staff – in other words, the teachers. 

Even today, you read it in the papers – most of the teachers are White and middle class. You never were going to get any balance, but they wanted to make the mix better than it had been, so they were going to voluntarily make assignments of new teachers – particularly new teachers coming in. 

Guess who got moved? The Black and Brown teachers got moved from central city to the suburbs and none of the suburban teachers came in [to the city]. In fact, I was principal in Watts, which is representative of the heart of the Black inner city. That disturbance, the riot that occurred in 1965 – this was 1968. I remember a young Caucasian gal who kept coming in looking for a job. She was really nice and had a good background and we said we would love to have her in our social studies program. And she said, ‘I can’t do that.’ She was very apologetic. And when I asked her why, she said, ‘It’s my mother – my mother doesn’t want me working down here.’ 

We started talking about the White [teachers] coming into the city. She said, ‘I know five White teachers who were assigned to inner city schools and they’ve all declared they’re pregnant and taking maternity leave – they’re not even pregnant.’ One of them actually got pregnant – what a way to have a kid, because of forced integration! But they would do that and wait, and then after they were taken off the list for a while, they would sub at one of the schools in the Valley and just stay there. 

What do you think is the core solution to better integrating schools today?

We isolate this chunk of humanity – kids – and we talk about how we can make them change by doing this and that. They’re very much connected to their adults [and] what are they hearing at the dinner table. When you start talking about integrating schools, you haven’t talked about integrating neighborhoods. You haven’t talked about integrating people. 

To me, it would have been better to work at the whole issue of housing. Mixed in all of this is poverty. And when you talk about African Americans and Hispanics… you’ve got to deal with the fact that there are vast numbers of those folks who are poor. A UCLA student told me one night when I asked a group of future graduates in education – they were seniors thoroughly mixed, White, Black, and Brown – I asked them, ‘What do you remember most abut high school?’ A young man, 20 or 21, raised his hand. He said, ‘What do I remember most about high school? It was walking home, wondering if I’ll have dinner.’ 

I said to myself, that’s about about as basic as it gets. A lot of these families, many of them… not only are they there – they’ve beenthere. They’re African Americans who came out of slavery, but they’ve gone into generational poverty. People don’t want them living by them, and all those other things develop. So, the problem is a deep one … a larger social problem than simply integrating schools.

Do you think that the courts were too highly involved or too little involved in attempts at integration? Or were they somewhere in the middle?

I would say, and it’s an oversimplification – to me, the court took the middle and did not want to go far enough to create a hullabaloo about mandatory this, that, and the other. I guess for want of a better term, they wanted to be reasonable. They didn’t want to force [integration], but they wanted to see progress. The more we did voluntarily, the better they liked it. And the more we did, the courts became quieter and quieter. So, to me, it just quietly died.

When the courts backed off of the forced integration and enforced bussing, everyone became relatively quiet. We did not have a hue and cry, for example, about the moving of kids from the inner city into other schools in the suburbs, which we would have had earlier. If you had tried that when I was at Belmont High School in the 1940s, you wouldn’t have pulled that off. 

The San Fernando Valley here in LA during World War II expanded and it was mostly White. They would not have put up with voluntary bussing of African American and Hispanic kids from the city to them. But, it was accepted during the 1970s because it beat the other alternative, which was mandatory [integration]. 

How did race affect your schooling and development?

I was born here and taken to the West Indies. We came back to the United States when I was only 10. In the British [school] system, you [learned] or else. I could read, I could compute. So, they thought here that I was a genius. They skipped me two years – I was 10 years old when I went into junior high.

I always wanted to go to sea. I told my father, who was an engineer at Lockheed at this point, and he said I could, but that I had to get a degree. Annapolis was not accepting Blacks, but once in a while, they would take one or two because of [state] representatives who got them in.  But as a general course, Blacks could not get into Annapolis or West Point or any of those federal academies, except the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, which took you in to be officers on merchant ships, and [for] the Navy reserves, which I ended up in during the Korean War. 

That was 1948. I was very young, I had graduated from high school at 16 and had to wait until I was 17. I [enlisted] at UCLA and was accepted at King’s Point. When I got there, I was called in by one of the chaplains and he said, ‘If you have too much trouble regarding your race, come and see me before you do anything.’ And I thought that was really strange – they didn’t do that with anybody else but me. 

I had dinner my first night at the Academy. I’m 3,000 miles from home. You sat by rank. The seniors sat at the head of the table and the plebes, they called them – the fourth classmen, the freshmen – sat at the bottom. We’re in uniform, the whole nine yards – it’s very military. This first classman leans down and says, ‘Report to my quarters at 21:00 hours this evening.’ I’m scared, I don’t know what this means. 

So, I went to that room and on the wall was a Confederate flag and two swords. I thought, ‘I think I have a problem.’ I’m braced up at rigid attention. These two White senior midshipmen officers …  walked up to me and blew cigar smoke in my face and told me, ‘You don’t belong here, boy. We don’t like your manners, we don’t like the way you eat…’ 

That’s deeply embedded in me and I believe it’s also deeply embedded in them. I think about those two guys now and in many ways, feel sorry for them. They were born the way they were, I was born the way I was. They learned lessons and were told things that they took to heart, and applied them. Unfortunately, I was the butt of that and I’ve never forgotten it. I feel like [those ideas of racism] are deeply engrained in some people in our society.

So, when you say ‘court order that,’ when it comes to the actions of human beings, I’m suspect. It depends on how deeply engrained [racism] is, and people will look for alternatives to doing the right thing. On the other hand, we can’t sit here and do nothing. It’s a slow process. It’s not something you’re going to solve with a generation’s kids, not with what the kids are hearing at home. 

As a superintendent in the 1990s, I visited a school that was in a predominantly White community, by housing pattern. There would be Black and White kids on campus. There was a tendency, always, that the Blacks were together, and the Whites were together. Then, there was a fringe group that broke off from each of them, no more than two or three or four. And they would be talking with each other, you would see it. And yet, the primary group [of each race] felt more secure with their own.

I say we’ve got a long way to go. But if we [need to] begin the battle – people being around each other and gradually coming to understand one another, giving them a chance to observe other people and have other people observe them and to understand no matter how they look, these are all human beings.

With thanks to Jared Olsen, Brigham Young University