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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

What Darius Swann Gave Charlotte, And What Charlotte Has Done With It

Tommy Tomlinson

Big moments are bound to slip by us in these frantic times. And so it is that we are just now hearing that the Rev. Darius Swann passed away back on March 8.

He was 95 and died from pneumonia.

If you have lived in Charlotte long, the name Swann matters. Darius Swann and his family put their name on the most important court case in Charlotte history – a case that changed America. At least for a while.

Swann and his wife, Vera, were Presbyterian missionaries. They had worked in China and India before moving to Charlotte to teach at Johnson C. Smith University, where they had both been students in the ‘40s.

Remember that in 1954, the Supreme Court said in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1957, a group of black students had broken the color barrier in Charlotte schools. But in 1964, when the Swanns came back to Charlotte, nearly all black students still went to segregated schools.

The Swanns wanted to send their son, James, to Seversville Elementary, which was integrated and was their neighborhood school. But the principal said James had to go to an all-black school first and apply to be transferred in.

The Swanns decided that was not sufficient. A civil rights lawyer named Julius Chambers, on behalf of the NAACP, was working with several black families who wanted to challenge the system. In 1965 they sued in federal court, in a case called Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

A judge named James McMillan agreed with Swann and the other plaintiffs, and ordered that the school system start busing students to integrate the schools. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1971 that McMillan’s order was sound. That 9-0 decision led to the widespread use of busing to racially balance schools.

People bombed Julius Chambers’ house back when the Swann case was going on. Judge McMillan was burned in effigy and got death threats. But when the time came to act, busing for integration happened in relative peace. And because of that, Charlotte got a reputation as a place that could make things work. That reputation served the city well for decades as we became known as a banking center, a business hub, and a fine place to live.

Darius and Vera Swann, in a fundamental way, helped make all of that happen.

By the time the case finally reached the Supreme Court, the Swanns were gone. They moved to New York, Hawaii, back to India, and finally to Darius Swann’s home state of Virginia.

And in Charlotte, history traveled in other directions.

Another federal court case in the '90s – this one from a white Charlotte parent who thought his daughter was the victim of reverse discrimination – led to the dismantling of much of the structure set up to keep our schools racially mixed. Our school system is not just black and white students anymore. But a few of our schools remain nearly all-black, 56 years after the Swanns sued to stop it.

And the riots after the Keith Lamont Scott police shooting in 2016 showed that Charlotte’s golden reputation was in some ways a false front for the fractures underneath.

It took enormous guts for the Swanns to attach their names to the simple idea that students should get an equal chance at equal schools, and maybe along the way learn to live together.

That’s the ideal that Darius Swann left behind for us. He gave us a gift. And despite all it meant to Charlotte, we seem determined to break it.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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