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SoCal P.O.V

Bitter Memories of the Busing Years

September 28, 1997|Patt Morrison

From childbirth to murder, certain human events can create their own anodynes, protectively wiping the memory clean of a pain or horror too wrenching for recall. Cities are like that, too. Los Angeles, which can chattily revisit its earthquakes and riots as if it were leafing through family albums, has allowed to disappear from its civic memory the crisis that, 20 years ago, pulled this place apart like so much saltwater taffy.

The courts, mildly, called it "desegregation." The white parents' and pols' blistering phrase was "forced busing." And for a time, the name of the judge who presided over it all became the foulest four-letter word on the civic tongue: Egly. Appointed to the bench by Gov. Pat Brown, elevated to Superior Court dignity by Gov. Ronald Reagan, Paul Egly had drawn the short judicial stick in a long case that began in 1963, when the family of a Jordan High School student allowed its name to carry the school-integration case forward.

It was an unlovely time in this lovely place, the shrieking suburbs vs. the shouting city, aggrieved white vs. angry black vs. out-of-the-loop Latino, armed school guards put on patrol the first day that thousands of kids stepped aboard buses, death threats and recall threats, the tragicomic effort to halt busing as a pollution risk. It was all topped off by an elected school board member saying: "If I were a white parent, I'd be looking for a private school or a new home outside the district."

The red rag of busing had already claimed one judge's career when Egly took over in 1977. By the time he quit the case and then the bench four years later, he was so controversial that he felt constrained to warn state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird--a woman so reviled that her black robe could have been embroidered "Kick me"--that it might not be wise to have her picture taken with him, so well known that when Mayor Tom Bradley agreed to meet with him, he had Egly smuggled into City Hall via the underground garage on a weekend.

The most august courts in the land were plumbing their law books and beetling their brows over this one. How could it be solved in Paul Egly's courtroom, where everyone expected him to capture lightning in a bottle?

*

He is a man in his 70s who lives now in orange county, sailing, as befits his age, smaller versions of the boats he once built, repaired and tended. He still teaches and does arbitration work in Los Angeles, sometimes running into young lawyers who remember busing from their school days, who half-recall the name Egly but are not sure why.

The case took more than four years of his life; the stress of it, he says, ultimately helped kill his first wife, whose health declined during the hearings. "She was a casualty of that case," he said then.

Los Angeles was subdivided and segregated in the 1970s when Egly was assigned to ride herd on the infamous case. He notices it even now on the freeways, that, like a nonstop transcontinental flight, a drive from the Valley to San Pedro never touches the city in between. And even as the case progressed, the city's monumental demographic changes--arriving Asians, new Central Americans, white and black flight--overtook the small remedy of school desegregation.

It ended with a whimper, not a bang. A quarter-century of lawsuits and appeals produced three years of mandatory busing and then a statewide initiative, Prop. 1, to stop it. The original case, the nation's first ordering of school desegregation by a state court to counter changing neighborhoods, sputtered and died in 1989. It still bothers Egly that the hope and the hysteria of those years have been willed into oblivion, like "some sort of embarrassing love affair: it ends--pfft!--and nobody wants to talk about it."

A few Egly creations remain: magnet schools, incentive pay for bilingual teachers, year-round schools. Just as people joked bitterly that he must have owned stock in the Bluebird school bus firm, Egly will joke now that so much of the growth of the city of Ventura can be credited to white flight that the place ought to bear the name "Eglyville."

Not long after he left the case, he reamed out the city's white power structure in a speech--the lollygagging politicians and so-called business leaders, the Westside parents who talked the talk but in the end refused to send their children from their "cute little schools to savage little schools." It grieves him still. "Did attitudes in L.A. change? Did demographics change? Did [the case] have an impact on the outline of growth in the city? I'd like to think they did, but I have to wonder."

In an age when the people and their institutions bore faith with each other, Paul Egly was sent out with one small tool to do battle with a vast armed camp. It was, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, a magnificent blunder.

The questions now are unchanged from then: Who is a minority? What is just, what is fair? And what can six hours in a classroom change for a kid who comes home from school with no textbooks, no one to ask how class went, no dinner to eat, no one to clear the kitchen table for a place to study, to make sure the light is good and the house is quiet? A million kid-miles aboard a thousand buses can't change that.

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