Race in America: We’ve come so far, but there’s still so far to go

Looking back on it all with a 21st century lens, after years of contentious debate nationwide over busing children out of their neighborhood schools to achieve racial integration, I have to ask whether it really happened.

It was the mid-20th century and Catholic schools in St. Louis were overcrowded and unable to enroll all of the students in the high schools closest to their homes. In deeply segregated St. Louis, the cardinal of its Catholic archdiocese came up with a plan to send me and my fellow students from our all-white neighborhoods to a Freshman Center in a predominantly black neighborhood, a journey that required taking two public buses to get there every day.

The ostensible reason given by the archdiocese for what was certainly a most unusual departure from the neighborhood schooling families had grown accustomed to in St. Louis was overcrowding. The high schools closest to the students simply had no room for the size of the entering freshman class. The cardinal at the time had a history of desegregating Catholic schools in one of his previous assignments, so it is entirely possible that he was also striving to break the color barrier in St. Louis’ Catholic schools.

Whatever the reason, it was a move that you would assume in those racially charged days would face serious opposition, if not outright defiance from parents. Even though we didn’t ride “yellow” school buses, the historic Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional, used the yellow school bus to achieve desegregation by moving children out of their neighborhoods into schools far from home. It was not an unusual evening news report that showed parents marching and demonstrating against forced busing.

Of course, that’s not the way it was seen by white residents who had no experience living or even working alongside African Americans. To white homeowners, black homeowners who found a way to get around discriminatory real estate practices to arrive in “white neighborhoods” would start a selling panic, thereby reducing the value of their homes.

I can distinctly remember the pastor of my Catholic church reassuring parents that black homeowners would not cross a major highway that seemed to be the last line leading to our all-white neighborhood.

But here’s the mystery of it all as I look back on those toxic days. There was not a whimper of disapproval when the cardinal decreed that Catholic children should take a bus, transfer and take another bus to a predominantly black neighborhood, where they would begin their freshman year. So why did our parents submit to this most unusual approach to the freshman year in high school? Taking two public transportation buses that were not painted yellow and did not have the protection the school district provided was hardly the easiest way to get to school in the morning.

There can be no doubt that the moral authority of the Catholic Church exerted a powerful influence over instincts at the time to maintain the separation of the races. This was long before priestly pedophilia became public and would undermine the influence and reputation of the Catholic Church, so the word of the cardinal and his parish priests was as good as gold in reassuring parents that God’s will was at work here, and all would be fine with the two-bus solution.

For many of the students, both black and white, this was a life-changing experience, the first time in their young lives that they would look across the classroom and see a fellow student of a different color. The next three years of high school became even more interesting. The white students would return to their neighborhood schools, historically all white, but black students would be bused in to those high schools from their neighborhoods.

Throughout that freshman year and for the next three, life would change considerably for all students. New friendships were forged among students who ignored whatever preconceived notions parents had of race. In one case, a white student who lived just a few doors from my high school would take her black friend home after school, but make sure she left before the student’s father got home after work. He would not understand his daughter befriending a black student and bringing her home, yet the family employed a black woman to clean the house.

This schooling experience would have a dramatic effect on my young life. One of the African American students I would meet that freshman year of high school would remain a friend through college, where we roomed across the hall from each other. But now it was the turbulent Sixties, and we apparently had not left the racist ways of St. Louis behind us. One evening in St. Joseph, Mo., we were asked to leave a restaurant because they didn’t serve “coloreds.” The year was 1964, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

This all came rushing back to memory this past weekend when I visited St. Louis, this time far from my old neighborhood. I was walking through an upscale department store when I noticed a salesman who ignored my presence, but was focused on two young black men shopping close by. No doubt, I was of no concern to the salesman, but those two black men were under close supervision, whether they knew it or not.

Reasonable people can agree or disagree about what I saw and what to make of it, but I cannot help but think two things. One is how far we’ve come, with young men shopping in such a fine store, because neither my black friend nor I could have afforded to shop in such a store back in the day. Two is how far we still have to go, because the color of a person’s skin still determines how they are treated, observed and watched – or even worse, affects their chances of being gunned down by police.

Laws are in place outlawing racial discrimination, but there is still work to be done with the hearts and minds of people who have much to learn about trusting and respecting people from different places.

As for my experience, I’m just glad I took those two buses to school.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a member of the Statesman editorial board.