Bogie, Bradley and Busing
The Story of Pinellas County School Integration: A nine-part series exclusive to the Gabber
By James A. Schnur
Part 6: The Rebel Yell of Parents Against Forced Busing
Gordon Young walked onto a crowded, tense campus as Boca Ciega High’s principal in the fall of 1968. Nearly 2,000 students attended Bogie, including less than 100 Black students. Before the end of the year, Gulfport and the sheriff’s department dispatched riot police to the campus and adjacent areas after hearing rumors of racial disturbances.
Conditions deteriorated at the end of April 1969, with reports of students and non-students roaming the campus in search of a fight. Isolated incidents instilled fear as more than 20% of the student body stayed home, and Black parents – many of them from Jordan Park – launched a boycott.
Green and the Swann Song of Segregation
During the late 1960s, urban districts throughout the South used two strategies to forestall widespread, court-mandated desegregation. They either zoned a few token students of a different race to other schools to break the color barrier, or created so-called “freedom of choice” plans that offered parents flexibility to select schools within certain clusters or assigned zones. The net effect of these strategies was minimal.
The U.S. Supreme Court addressed these tactics in its 1968 Green v. New Kent County School Board decision. Moving beyond the 1954 Brown verdict that had declared “separate but equal” facilities inherently unconstitutional, Green proclaimed that districts had to look at additional issues other than pupil assignment to end dual schools.
Beyond attendance zones, Justices added other metrics that educators knew as “Green factors.” These included enrollment trends, the composition of faculty and staff, availability of extracurricular activities and the relative condition of facilities. These broader measures would henceforth be used to determine whether a district remained dual in structure or had truly reached what the court called “unitary status.”
Federal Judge Joseph Lieb ordered a revised desegregation plan that met the “Green factors” in March 1969. The plan he approved in August 1969 did not please James Sanderlin, the NAACP attorney who launched the Bradley lawsuit in 1964 because it kept nearly two-thirds of the county’s Black students in heavily segregated schools. Sanderlin appealed Lieb’s order to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and won.
The Fifth Circuit modified Bradley in July 1970. Through clustering and new attendance zones, the judges had desegregated all public schools except Jordan, Melrose and Perkins elementary schools in St. Petersburg.
Sensing disaffection among many constituents who disliked desegregation, Governor Claude Kirk decided to step up his attacks against any judicial decrees that mandated busing. Coincidentally, the governor many ridiculed as “Claudius Maximus” also spent much of 1970 campaigning for a second term in the governor’s mansion.
Kirk courted votes by challenging court orders. When Volusia County on Florida’s east coast felt federal pressure to comply with a busing mandate in February 1970, Kirk called Vice President Spiro Agnew to ask that he and President Richard Nixon withhold funds for busing.
After Manatee County officials began to follow an order by Judge Lieb, Kirk interposed himself into this quandary by temporarily taking control of this district on April 5, 1970. Sixty state police officials, some in riot gear, escorted Kirk to Bradenton. The governor spent a week sitting in the superintendent’s office with armed highway patrol officers keeping federal marshals from serving him contempt of court citations before he relented.
Whites who opposed desegregation cheered these efforts. A local group known as United Residents of Pinellas (URP) formed in 1970 to protest busing. Meanwhile, an incident during the first weekend of May 1970 ransacked Bogie’s campus. Burglars kicked open doors and broke windows throughout the open-air classroom wings, vandalized the athletic field house and trashed the kitchen and cafeteria.
The pillagers commandeered crowbars from shop classrooms, entered Principal Gordan Young’s office and punched a hole in the wall to gain access to and break into the school’s safe. Pirate Pride dipped to a new low as news of the plunder spread throughout the community.
A few months later, a different outburst happened a few miles to the east. Confirming the long-held fears of the Black community, district officials had decided to shutter Gibbs High. Clamor by Sanderlin and other Black residents forced the school board’s hand, as officials decided on August 12, 1970 to reopen the facility as Gibbs Comprehensive High School.
Ten white and nearly 550 Black students were zoned to attend Gibbs that fall. White teachers made up the majority of the faculty for the first time in the school’s history. The board’s flip-flopping left little time for teachers to prepare their classrooms, put pressure on parents to adjust to a newly assigned school and left student athletes at Gibbs little time to prepare for fall contests.
Another incident happened at Gibbs on September 7, the day before classes began: Just before noon, a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere hit more than 25 members of the school’s all-Black football team as they scrimmaged on Labor Day to make up for lost time from when officials had planned to close the school. Two players died. Twenty others went to the hospital from an already embattled community.
In October 1970, conditions worsened. Kirk complained about another busing case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving North Carolina schools. After losing the gubernatorial election to Democratic challenger Reubin Askew a month later, Kirk raised the temperature of his anti-busing rhetoric. He joined other conservatives who carefully couched their message about preserving “neighborhood” schools in a way that sounded race-neutral.
Justices delivered their verdict on the North Carolina case in April 1971. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education had immediate implications for Florida’s urban school districts. The Court ruled that cross-district busing offered a viable and appropriate way to redress past patterns of discrimination and reach unitary status. The dictates Justices wrote into the Swann decision were fighting words to Kirk and URP.
A new group formed. Parents Against Forced Busing (PAFB) gained some URP members throughout Pinellas, but attracted many new supporters in south county. URP tended to focus on legal tactics; PAFB preferred protests. Kirk parlayed his political skills to build an anti-busing movement that he hoped to take far beyond Florida’s borders. He became a public face for PAFB as local residents opposed to Swann mobilized forces.
PAFB hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would affirm a last-ditch attempt to prevent busing. The Court disappointed anti-busing forces on May 3, 1971 when Justices denied a petition to overturn earlier plans required by Lieb and the Court of Appeals. Now that this last door closed, the school board had to comply.
On June 2, the district voted 5-2 on a new desegregation plan to amend the Bradley decision to comply with Swann. Black students shouldered the burden of busing under this arrangement, with 70% of them bused away from nearby schools to meet the court order. Although white parents were promised that their children would never endure busing for desegregation for more than two years at a time, many Black students rode buses past closer campuses for most of their educational careers.
PAFB responded to this vote with rallies, most of them in south county. More than 1,000 parents assembled at a PAFB meeting in the Meadowlawn area on Sunday, June 13. Signs proclaiming “Save Our Schools” adorned the platform. Ron Fisher, the school board chair, urged resistance against his own district’s decree. Others shared the home telephone numbers of the “funky five” board members who voted for the plan.
This plan left all public schools majority white, including those in historically Black neighborhoods, by imposing a “tipping point” of 30% maximum Black student enrollment in each school. By the fall of 1971, Bogie’s Black enrollment was slated to raise to 17%; by comparison, Bruce McMillan, the new – and first-ever white – principal of Gibbs High would see projected Black enrollment decline from 96% to 15%, even less than Bogie.
While transportation managers drew new school zone maps and readied an insufficient fleet of buses, PAFB members plotted and strategized for the upcoming fall semester. Fifty years ago this summer, many teachers and parents wondered if violence would fill their children’s campuses. Many older students worried about race riots, while their younger siblings expressed excitement that they would board big buses for new adventures.
Hop on the bus with us next week to return to those days, with extended stops at Bogie and Dixie.
James A. Schnur graduated from Boca Ciega High as a member of the inaugural class that experienced Pinellas school desegregation from first through twelfth grades. To comply with court-ordered busing, he rode the bus for four of those years. He’s written five books about Pinellas communities and has also lectured and published about Florida and Florida education history.