Riddick Case

The Riddick Case: Busing and Desegregation in Norfolk

Although Massive Resistance failed in 1959, school integration in Norfolk did not proceed with any “deliberate speed.” By 1962, there had been little progress. There were still 33 all-white schools in Norfolk and 24 all-black schools. In the 10 so-called integrated schools, with a total population of 12,922 students, there were only 101 black students enrolled. No white students attended a majority black institution.1

By 1968, the situation had not significantly improved. At the time, there were 73 public schools in Norfolk, with 55,499 students. Ten schools remained 100 percent white, and 19 schools were 100 percent black. In addition, 9 schools were 99 percent white or black. For example, Ruffner Jr. High had 1 white student and 1,023 black students. This meant that 38 of the 73 schools in the city, with a student population of 25,929, were either totally segregated or 99 percent white or black. Of the remaining 35 schools, 10 were over 97 percent white or black, with a student population of 7,968; and 11 were over 90 percent white or black, with a student population of 10,767. In total, then, 59 of 73 schools in Norfolk were more than 90 percent white or black, which meant that more than 45,000 of 55,000 students attended a school that was racially segregated.2

In response to these figures, black parents in Norfolk filed Brewer v. School Board of the City of Norfolk (1970), a continuation of the old Beckett case. When the Brewer case appeared in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, the Court ordered that Norfolk must develop a plan to achieve real integration. Shortly after this decision, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971), which gave the District Court more latitude in overseeing local desegregation programs. It was soon thereafter that Norfolk, under the guidance of the District Court, began mandatory regional and cross-town busing. In 1971, for the first time in the city's history, public schools moved swiftly toward integration. More than 24,000 students at all levels were bused to meet the directives of the court.3

The U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, now under the leadership of John MacKenzie, oversaw the integration process in Norfolk . It was terribly short-lived, however. In 1975, Judge MacKenzie found that “the School Board of the City of Norfolk has satisfied its affirmative duty to desegregate,” and that “racial discrimination through official action has been eliminated from the system.” Norfolk 's school system, Judge MacKenzie said, “is now ‘unitary.'”4

Norfolk did not immediately end its cross-town busing program, however. It took several further years for the city to consider such action, yet when it did, the issue raised a firestorm of controversy. The proposal to end the cross-town busing of elementary school children for desegregation purposes had its origins in the demographic problems Norfolk faced. A survey of the record presented in the Riddick case tells the story. In 1970, the year before busing began, Norfolk 's schools enrolled 56,830 students, of which 57 percent (32,586) were white and 43 percent (24,244) were black.5 By 1983, when the plan to end elementary school busing was debated by the School Board, the situation had changed dramatically. Total enrollment in Norfolk 's schools had declined by more than 20,000 to 35,540. In addition, the racial composition of the school system had changed. Now, 58 percent of the students (20,681) were black and 42 percent (13,327) were white. The city had witnessed, therefore, a 59 percent decline in white enrollment over 12 years.6

The demographic transformation in Norfolk Public Schools troubled the district's School Board as early as 1981. That year, the Board established an ad hoc committee to examine the issue of cross-town busing. The bi-racial committee, which included Jean Bruce (white), Hortense Wells (black), Tommy Johnson (white), Robert Hicks (white), and John Foster (black).7 As part of their consideration, the committee members visited Shreveport, Louisiana and Richmond , Virginia , two cities that had gone through recent struggles with white flight and other desegregation issues. The committee also solicited information from scholars and public policy experts, including Dr. David Armor, Dr. Ron Edwards, Dr. Sarah Lightfoot, and Dr. Robert Green. By the end of the study, John Foster was the only member of the ad hoc committee to disagree with the proposal to end the cross-town busing of elementary students.8

Once the proposed plan to end busing was before the School Board, the body hired Dr. Armor to report on the future problems that cross-town busing might cause the city's school system. Armor's controversial report suggested that if cross-town busing was not halted, white flight would continue, and that Norfolk 's school system would become predominantly African American. Specifically, Armor argued that 75 percent of the student body would be black by 1987, thus ending any hope of an integrated education for students in the city's public schools.9

Following Armor's report, the School Board held 6 public hearings to discuss a new pupil placement plan entitled, “A Proposal For a Voluntary Stably Desegregated School System." The plan called for a return to “neighborhood schools” at the K-6 level, but left middle and high school busing in place. Supporters of the plan emphasized three points: 1) that cross-town busing was causing white flight, which was fundamentally altering the city's demographic makeup; 2) that cross-town busing reduced parental involvement in city schools; and, 3) that cross-town busing was difficult for young children, who should not be forced to bear the burden of the society that their parents and grandparents had created. Opponents of the plan countered with three points of their own: 1) that at least 10 and possibly 12 schools would become completely black as a result of ending busing; 2) that their city was witnessing the resegregation of the public schools; and 3) that materials would not be equally allocated once white and black schools appeared in Norfolk.10

When the public debates ended in 1983, the School Board voted 5-to-2 in favor of the proposal to end cross-town busing, which would take effect in September 1984. Or so it seemed. In response to the School Board's decision, Paul Riddick and other African American parents in Norfolk , filed suit in U.S. District Court to halt the end of elementary school busing. Riddick and the other plaintiffs contended that the School Board's plan was “racially motivated and that its implementation would violate the rights of the plaintiffs under the Fourteenth Amendment.”11

The U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia disagreed. In an opinion written by Judge John MacKenzie, the court said that the evidence presented by the plaintiffs “falls short of demonstrating the requisite discriminatory intent.” There was no proof that the proposed plan of the Norfolk School Board was “racially motivated.” On the contrary, Judge MacKenzie wrote, there was ample evidence to show that the School Board was trying to “meet the threat posed by white flight . . . [and] to increase the level of parental involvement” in Norfolk Public Schools. The District Court, therefore, found for the City of Norfolk.12

Riddick and his fellow plaintiffs then appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the case in 1985. In the opinion, issued a year later, Circuit Judge Hiram E. Widener, Jr. upheld the decision of the District court and emphasized many of the points it had made. For instance, Judge Widener rejected the plaintiffs's allegation that the School Board's decision to end elementary school busing was “racially motivated.” “The School Board of Norfolk is racially mixed,” Widener wrote, quoting from MacKenzie.

The Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Gene R. Carter, is black. Two of the three Regional Assistant Superintendents are also black. There are 88 principals in the system, 59% are white, 41% are black. The faculty is likewise fully integrated, 56% white, 44% black. . . . Given that the staff is completely integrated and given that very qualified blacks are at the top of the organization, the fear that white students will stand to reap some benefit over black students is totally lacking in credence.13

If the plaintiffs could not show that the School Board's decision to discontinue cross-town busing was intended to benefit white elementary students at the expense of black elementary students -- and thus was “racially motivated” -- could it be said that the decision endangered the Fourteenth Amendment rights of the black students? On this question, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals again found itself in agreement with the District Court. Judge Widener wrote that the School Board's decision to end elementary busing may have a deleterious effect on African American students, but if the plaintiffs could not prove an intent to discriminate, there was no constitutional violation. “This purpose, or intent to discriminate,” Widener said, “marks the difference between de facto and de jure segregation”14 -- the former being legal, the latter illegal.

With these words, Judge Widener closed Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk (1986), the first federal decision to permit a school district to dismantle its desegregation plan. Six months later, in September 1986, the cross-town busing of elementary school children ended in Norfolk, and ten all-black elementary schools appeared on the city's books.15

VI. Conclusion:
Norfolk 's Recent History and Brown v. Board of Education

Since 1986, Norfolk 's public school system has continued to evolve. In 2001, the city ended cross-town busing for middle school students, and as recently as November 2003 the School Board considered a proposal to end busing for high school students. Yet, it appears that the end of cross-town busing at the elementary and middle school levels has not produced a more integrated district, as was predicted in the mid-1980s. This does not mean, however, that Paul Riddick and his allies were any more correct than Dr. David Armor and the defenders of the Norfolk School Board. The clear problems facing Norfolk Public Schools in 2004 are similar to those that the district has faced throughout the last century: urban poverty, racial strife, and, in the more recent era, white flight.

These pressing issues have fundamentally altered Norfolk Public Schools, since the era of Brown v. Board of Education. In 1959, when Norfolk 's schools were first integrated, total enrollment stood at 47,334. Of these students, 32,163 were white and 15,171 were black. In 2002, when the latest figures were available, total enrollment stood at 36,745. Of these students, 9,995 were white and 24,913 were black.16 This racial transformation was caused primarily by “white flight,” which did not begin in earnest until 1971, when busing was instituted. The tragic irony is that without busing, the schools never would have been truly integrated, and with busing, so many whites left the city that integration became virtually impossible. In fact, the figures from 2002 show that the district is more segregated today than at any time since 1970. A full half of the 8 middle schools are over 70 percent African American. In addition, 11 of 34 elementary schools are over 80 percent African American, and 8 of those are over 95 percent African American.17

There can be no doubt that these figures will lead to continuing debate, as members of the Norfolk community seek to negotiate the difficult terrain left in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. As we have seen, the Brown decision was an integral part of a much larger and longer struggle for educational rights in Norfolk. Although the Supreme Court's ruling overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Brown did not desegregate public schools any more than it made them equal. For we in Norfolk still have a far way to go to achieve the type of equality that Thurgood Marshall envisioned, when he said that “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.”


1. James Baker, “Integration in Virginia Schools,” Virginia Journal of Education 56 (1962):18.

2. “Norfolk City Schools Special Report on Enrollment as of October 1, 1968 .” Norfolk Public Schools, Office of the Chief Operating Officer, File Cabinet for Busing, Transportation Folder.

3. See Deborah Moira Jewell-Jackson, “Ending Mandatory Busing for Desegregation in Norfolk , Virginia : A Case Study Explaining the Decision Making Process in a Formerly De Jure Southern School District ” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1995). In addition, see, Susan E. Eaton and Christina Meldrum, "Broken Promises: Resegregation in Norfolk , Virginia ," in Dismantling Desegregation , ed. Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton (New York: The New Press, 1996).

4. Judge MacKenzie quoted in Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk , 627 F. Supp, 814, 819 (U.S. Dist. 1984). See also Eaton, "Broken Promises,” 117.

5. Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk , 627 F. Supp, 814, 817 ( U.S. Dist. 1984).

6. Ibid.

7. Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk , 784 F.2d 521, 527 (4th Cir. 1986).

8. Ibid., 526.

9. Ibid.

10. See Deborah Moira Jewell-Jackson, “Ending Mandatory Busing for Desegregation in Norfolk , Virginia : A Case Study Explaining the Decision Making Process in a Formerly De Jure Southern School District ,” Dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1995.

11. Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk , 627 F. Supp, 814, 816 ( U.S. Dist. 1984).

12. Ibid., 821.

13. Ibid.

14. Riddick v. School Board of the City of Norfolk , 784 F.2d 521, 543 (4th Cir. 1986).

15. See Eaton, "Broken Promises,” 118.

16. 1959 figures, Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob, 1. 2003 figures, “2002-2003 Division Performance Report: Executive Summary, Norfolk Public Schools ,” 23.

17. “2002-2003 Division Performance Report: Executive Summary, Norfolk Public Schools ,” 23.