Busing Circa 1969 as Seen Today

by Kirby Olson (August 2018)

If men were angels, no government would be necessary
                                                              Federalist 51.
Montpelier sat before the Blue Ridge Mountains an adumbration
of heaven. Just over those mountains is West Virginia.
Over there were few slaves, but Madison’s house was
surrounded by fields, slaves worked them, providing yields,
of wheat and tares, and barleycorn, while he labored on the problem
of freedom. Before a gorgeous window he squibbed the Bill of
Rights, but few of his slaves could read. One wrote a book, and
another earned a patent. When I visited, the house belonged to the
Federal Government. It was a Landmark. Unable to explain the
capacious grace or the spare yet ornate luxury, busy but calm, it was
the day before Thanksgiving, 2012. The trees were not yet all yellow.
Madison believed in checks and balances, but wanted the Judiciary
to check the Legislature, and thought the judges should not be the
barbarous poor with mud on their boots from Alabama. It was
the Warren Court who, when I was a boy in Virginia, decided to
send me to a mixed school on a poky bus to solve the problem of
inequality, by ridding us of separation. They would put us in one poke.
With a stroke of the pen, the race question was settled for us to dodge
with spitballs and fast reflexes. Then there was white flight, out of the
urban, as whites went to West Virginia, and other rural areas.
My family fled to northeastern Pennsylvania, where blacks were few.
I listened to Jefferson Airplane with a black friend. Blacks had been
treated like Jews on the plantations. Madison had done better than
some, and nearby at Ashlawn, Monroe had qualms. Slaves had no
families, but some were able to solve equations, or talk turkey.
The tractors’ wheels like Roosevelt dimes in northeastern Pennsylvania
rolled over the rills before the Johnstown Flood erased the farmers.
The costs have increased a hundred-fold since Jefferson’s nickel.
Where slaves once ministered to James Madison’s fields,
the National Trust tills the race course beside Montpelier today.
Federalists wanted the magistrates to review laws:
legislation that streamlined the administration
and “elevated the level of decision-making”*
to that of a golden quill behind armored fenestration,
such that we could have Brown vs. Board of Education.
At eleven I was bussed in Virginia near the District of C.
Southern whites formed alliances against northern whites.
Black gangs formed, too, arming themselves w/slingshots:
flying paperclips in the classroom, firecrackers at lunch,
knives flashing in the bathroomsthe final arbiterthe zipgun.
I snoozed on the one-hour morning commute, as Levi-Strauss
droned on in my anthropology book, on the Race Question.
Gangs of kids moved according to ancient variables, while
circles of squares at Dupont Circle toasted desegregation.
Many today think busing was worth the aggravation.
*Professor Gordon Wood at Brown University during a conference on Liberty held on Saturday, October 29, 2011 paraphrasing the philosophy of James Madison and the Federalists on the importance of leaving the judiciary in the hands of the highly educated.



Kirby Olson is a tenured English professor at SUNY-Delhi in the western Catskills. His books include a novel (Temping), about an English professor who starts a circus in Finland; a book of poems entitled Christmas at Rockefeller Center; and several books of literary criticism about ludic surrealists. He is currently working on a memoir of his time spent at Naropa Institute studying with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He is a Lutheran and a member of AARP.

Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast
2 Aug 2018
From a distance they envied us; we respected them. But only from a distance. We were forced on them and they on us. Coerced closeness always gives birth to contempt. And this contempt is real, as real as a concrete block to the head. But there was once a time when they envied us and we respected them.

5 Aug 2018
Send an emailKirby Olson
Reinhold Niebuhr argues in his book The Children of Light, The Children of Darkness (1944), that because of technological advances, no cultures will be truly separate. He argues that the pride of each culture, and each race, is a threat to other's pride. What do we do about this, he asks. He recommends holding pride in abeyance to a degree. Niebuhr quotes someone named John Saltmarsh, a 17th century divine: "Let us not assume any power of infallibility toward each other... for another's evidence is as dark to me as mine to him... until the Lord enlighten us both for discerning alike" (136). He also recommends that we try to find universals, while remembering that we're all stuck in particular times and places, and cannot truly transcend until the end time.

5 Aug 2018
Niebuhr moved to beautiful Stockbridge in the Berkshires and lived there until his death. How white was/is Stockbridge? It was also home to Norman Rockwell, that's how. Had Niebuhr seen any but palefaces from his window he would have needed the Hubble telescope. So his thoughts on the give and take in race relations might be taken with many grains of salt. Reflections written in the safety of a quiet and snug study are rarely applicable to the batter and grind of everyday life. John Cash's lyrics "in five hundred years of fighting not one Indian turned white" entail more lucent truth than Niebuhr's recommendations. Universals? Usually translate as lowest common denominator. We all suck air and enjoy a nice piece of a--. Therefore we are all brothers. How's that for finding a silver lining?

9 Aug 2018
Send an emailKirby Olson
Earlier on he had lived in Detroit. He had some socialist ideas about it. Socialist ideas levelled Detroit, rather than level the playing field, but Niebuhr's life wasn't completely without color. Thanks for your colorful commentary.

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