Rev. Darius Swann and his wife, Vera, with family and friends at Burke Presbyterian Church in Virginia. (Presbyterian Church (USA))
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) mourns the loss of former client Reverend Darius L. Swann, lead plaintiff in the landmark school desegregation case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Reverend Swann joined the lawsuit against the school board in 1965 when his 6-year-old son James was denied enrollment to the integrated public school in their Charlotte neighborhood. Swann’s case was ultimately argued before the United States Supreme Court by Julius Chambers, LDF’s first intern and later third Director-Counsel. In the 1971 Swann decision, the Supreme Court upheld the use of busing as a means of desegregating public schools. Reverend Darius L. Swann died on Sunday, March 8th in Centreville, Virginia at the age of 95, as reported by The Washington Post.
Darius Swann and his wife Vera Swann, both Presbyterian missionaries, moved with their family from India to Charlotte in 1964, where they became active in the civil rights movement, according to a February 5, 1989 Charlotte Observer profile. The Swanns worked on voter registration drives in Eastern Carolina, and Vera supported a group of Black domestic workers seeking higher wages. They wanted their son James, entering the first grade, to attend an integrated school. Reverend Swann wrote a letter to the school board on September 2, 1964: “having lived practically all his life in India, James has never known the meaning of racial segregation. We have been happy to watch him grow and develop with an unaffected openness to people of all races and backgrounds, and we feel it our duty as parents to ensure that this healthy development continue.” The school board nonetheless sent James to the all-Black school, despite the integrated school being in their neighborhood.
Rev. and Vera Swann (Presbyterian Church (USA))
The lawsuit originated when, in 1964, Julius Chambers was concerned with the limited progress that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was making to desegregate its schools. “We were upset with the board’s proposal simply to close several black schools in the county rather than take some steps that would effectively desegregate the schools. Working with the NAACP and several local black groups, we decided to file suit,” Chambers said. He worked with ten Black families, including the Swanns, to sue the school board. Jack Greenberg, LDF’s Director-Counsel at the time, described the busing strategy in Crusaders in the Courts: “In Charlotte, where blacks were concentrated near the center of town, it wasn’t possible to desegregate by drawing simple zone lines. An expert witness, John Finger of the University of Rhode Island, drew a plan that paired center-city and outlying schools into single, noncontiguous zones. The inner-city school would teach some grades and the peripheral school would teach the remaining grades, so that black and white children would attend each school, many by bus.”
Despite misconceptions, busing has been an effective means for integrating public schools. After the Swann decision, Greenberg said, “we filed Swann motions in all our pending cases and, for the first time, thoroughgoing desegregation became widespread.” In a recent op-ed on busing, Sherrilyn Ifill stated: “The trend line of increased school segregation can be reversed by school districts using all available means to combat segregation. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of magnet schools, busing, voluntary student transfers, and zoning. Ultimately, we must recognize that white resistance to school integration then and now is intertwined with the misbegotten belief of white parents that an integrated education provides no benefit for white children.”
During the contentious Swann litigation, Julius Chambers endured firebombings of his home, car, and office in Charlotte.
The Swann case was reopened in the 1990s when the district shifted to magnet schools and a white parent sued the school district because his daughter was denied admission to a magnet school. The school board defended its desegregation plan over the course of the trial—as the Washington Post obituary for Reverend Swann notes, successful integration was for many years a point of pride in Charlotte. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999 sided with the white parent, ending the busing program and race-based pupil assignments, and prompting a resurgence in segregated schools in Charlotte.
Reflecting in 1989, Darius Swann said, “I believe in the integration that I believed in originally: We come together from different backgrounds, all sharing the gifts that we can offer to a richer society. I don’t believe in taking a few black children and plopping them down in a white school where none of what they bring with them is accepted. I look at the country as a whole, and I wonder how much longer it will take for everybody to be free and equal.”
Reverend Swann is survived by his wife Vera Swann, daughter Edith Swann, son James Swann of Atlanta, two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.