Filed Under Race and Ethnicity

The Desegregation of Cleveland Public Schools

A 40-Year Struggle for Public School Equity

Gathering at the Lincoln Statue in front of the Board of Education building, members of WELCOME (West-East Siders Let’s Come Together) rallied to promote a safe and peaceful start of busing to achieve racial balance in the Cleveland Schools. The federal court order and plans were in place amid community unrest concerning the transporting of students to desegregate the schools beginning in the 1979-80 school year. However the reality of transporting students to achieve integrated schools throughout the city challenged students, parents, activists, and educators to meet on Cleveland’s major east-west bridge to mount an effort to insure student safety and keep the process peaceful. Members of CORK (Citizens Opposed to Rearranging Kids) also called for the uninterrupted and peaceful implementation of the initial phases of desegregation. These rallies marked the beginning of each of three phases of student transportation during the year. Despite their feelings, citizens of Cleveland wanted a peaceful school atmosphere.

The effort that began fifteen years earlier was inspired in part by activism in the South. Yearlong protests of discriminatory student assignment policies in the Cleveland Public Schools culminated with the tragic death of a protester at Stephen E. Howe Elementary School in 1964. School system scrutiny and debate continued over the ensuing decade and a lawsuit known as Reed v. Rhodes was filed with the Federal Court in Cleveland in 1973.

The litigation was long and complicated. Two years after the suit was filed on December 12, 1973, the late Judge Frank J. Battisti presided over a lengthy bench trial in 1975 and 1976. On August 31, 1976, Judge Battisti concluded that “the District and other Defendants, including the state board of education, had contributed, by both commission and omission, to an unconstitutional segregation of the Cleveland Public Schools.” The court permanently enjoined defendants “from discriminating on the basis of race in the operation of the public schools of the City of Cleveland, and from creating, promoting, or maintaining racial segregation in any school or other facility in the Cleveland Public Schools.” Both the state and local defendants were ordered to submit plans to desegregate the school district, which failed the court’s approval. A Special Master was appointed to develop a plan and later, on February 6, 1978, the court reaffirmed its earlier conclusion that the defendants were constitutionally liable for having maintained a de jure segregated public school system, and that these numerous constitutional violations demanded a system-wide remedy.   

The court issued a remedial order directing Defendants to implement, beginning in September 1978, a “comprehensive, system-wide plan of actual desegregation which eliminates the systematic pattern of schools substantially disproportionate in their racial composition to the maximum extent feasible.” The broad remedial order required the defendants to desegregate administrative, supervisory and teaching personnel, to desegregate the schools, to develop creative educational curriculums, and to develop methods of monitoring compliance. The district court also ordered racial balance:  “the racial composition of the student body of any school within the system shall not substantially deviate from the racial composition of the system as a whole.”  Additional guarantees of student safety, counseling, extra curricular programs, transportation services were ordered among others.  

Work then began to devise a method to remedy segregation in the Cleveland schools; plans were prepared to respond to all aspects of the court ruling. Also, the court re-appointed a Special Master, retained two experts on school desegregation, established the Office of School Monitoring and Community Relations (which it charged with rigorous monitoring of desegregation implementation), and ordered the appointment of an official Desegregation Administrator to be paid by the defendants. 

In order to comply with the plus/minus 15% racial benchmark, students were assigned and bused to schools across town to achieve the requisite racial balance in each individual school. When imbalances resurfaced, they were corrected by administrative orders and students were reassigned as needed. Following additional litigation and challenges in 1977, the court ordered implementation to begin. A limited number of junior high students were transported in 1978-79 school year followed by a three-phase system-wide implementation from September 1979 to September 1980. 

Meanwhile, an unhappy community continued to protest the court approved remedies to be implemented. Pro and anti-busing advocates frequently picketed the school district headquarters, but the Court prevailed with its charge to proceed. Annually, throughout the 1980s, students were reassigned and bused to satisfy the court order. Bus rides for some students exceeded 80 minutes each way as east and west side students were assigned to cross-town destinations to balance the school populations. Despite the ongoing debate within the community, student transportation and assignments were never interrupted by civil disobedience. The intention to carry out court orders in a peaceful manner prevailed. In 1987, Judge Battisti authorized changes in pupil assignments without prior court approval if such changes were agreeable to the following three parties:  the school district, the State Superintendent, and Plaintiffs' legal counsel. During the initial six years of full implementation, the district, the monitoring agency, and the court remained engaged in detailed review of the progress and the reorganization of district management.

In the 1980s, the city school system became predominantly nonwhite as a result of white flight out of the city and school boundaries. The Cleveland School District operated approximately 130 schools, 90% of which satisfied the 15% limitation every year. Dr. Gordon Foster, who had previously served as the plaintiffs' expert witness during the liability phase of this case, issued a report in 1988 that stated the district had ended any overt segregation or discrimination and was “the only majority black, large city system in the country which is totally desegregated.” In addition, as ordered, the Office of School Monitoring and Community Relations conducted a detailed assessment of the state of compliance with all outstanding remedial orders and concluded that the defendants had substantially complied with the 15% limitation and that any deviations could not be attributed to discriminatory student assignments. While a relatively small proportion of district schools each year had enrollments that exceed the maximum deviation, no evidence suggested that this was the result of discrimination on the basis of race in the assignment of students. The Monitoring Office's assessment recommended that the parties continue to work together to move the case forward. 

In March 1992, the district court vacated over 500 orders upon joint motion of all the parties. However, there was a sense that the quality of public education had declined while the cost of operation had increased. The court thus urged the parties “not to hesitate to think about innovative programs and undertakings” that might ameliorate the situation in the school system. Judge Battisti further noted “the Court [had] not set out to run a busing company,”  and directed the parties to address whether they believed “the interests of the students in Cleveland would be better served by an alternative student assignment plan,”  and further suggested that parental and student choice become an important factor in student assignment within the Cleveland School District.  

By 1998, U.S. District Chief Judge George W. White concluded that it was time to end the quarter-century court battle over integrating the 76,500-student district, saying "the purposes of this desegregation litigation have been fully achieved." In declaring the system "unitary," the judge found that the state and district had done all that could be expected to remedy the harm created by past segregation in the changing urban district. The persistent gap in student performance between black and white students, he found, "is the result of socioeconomic status and factors directly related to it, not race." In doing so, the judge also began the process to determine how much longer state education officials would keep day-to-day control of the district. He would hold hearings soon to consider lifting the 1995 order in the desegregation case that declared the district in crisis and stripped the elected school board of authority and arrange the control of the school district under the city’s mayor-appointed school board. Nonetheless the community, though grudgingly, had also cooperated during the twenty years to maintain a peaceful desegregation process in Cleveland.


Filing the Desegregation Case in US Federal Court James Hardiman, attorney for the plaintiffs, describes the background story as the NAACP filed the suit to desegregate the Cleveland Public Schools in 1973. Source: This excerpt was derived from the recording of the Maltz Museum's presentation: BEYOND THE CALL: REV. BRUCE KLUNDER & THE FIGHT FOR CLEVELAND'S STUDENTS
Creator: Cleveland State University, Department of Education Date: April 12, 2017


Bridgewalk, 1980 In order to promote peaceful school desegregation as pupil transportation began, a group called WELCOME-Westsiders Eastsiders Let's Come Together staged rallys at the Lincoln Statue and on the crosstown Detroit-Superior Bridge. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: Septmber 18, 1980
Parents March Against Relay The Cleveland Public Schools policy to manage overcrowded schools was to relay morning and afternoon classes in the neighboorhood buildings while other schools were partially vacant. Racially divided areas and schools persisted. The early movement to challenge this practice began with protests at School Board headquarters. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: September, 26, 1961
The Early Protest The movement towards awareness of unequal treatment of black students in the Cleveland Public Schools was initiated as a series of protest actions during the 1963-64 school year. In January, 1964 pickets protested Board of Education President Ralph McAllister's stance regarding the handling of balck student overcrowding. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: January 28, 1964
Hazeldell Relay Students Board Buses Efforts to diffuse overcrowding in schools included transporting students to less crowded, but still segregated classes in nearby schools. Regional Transit Authority buses were utlized for this initiative. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: January 28, 1964
Sit-In, Cleveland Board of Education Headquarters As the District and the Federal District Court debated the desegration implementation process, members of the community staged protests to pressure the process. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: December, 1979
Anti-Busing Demonstrators The federal order to desegregate the Cleveland Public Schools brought anti-busing sentiments forward. Here, protestors representing CORK (Citizens Opposed to Rearranging Kids) demonstrate against the busing order on the Detroit-Superior Bridge in downtown Cleveland. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: December, 1979 (published)
Cleveland's Desegregation Plan High school attendance clusters within the Cleveland Public Schools were paired to implement student assignments and transportation to achieve integrated schools at all levels. The map shows the paired districts to illustrate the assignment patterns for students on both sides of the city. Source: The Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: January 25, 1980
Bridgewalk WELCOME members rally on the Detroit-Superior Bridge in September, 1979 as the first buses began transporting pupils to implement desegration in the schools. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: September 7, 1978
Phoenix Bus Depot Many buses were needed to transport students for desegregation. Here, one of three city bus terminals ilustrates the readiness to begin the effort. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: February, 1981
Busing begins in Cleveland Following a year of haggling between the school district and the federal court about implementation plans, students were transported in September, 1979. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: September 10, 1979
First Day of Busing September 10, 1979 is acknowledged as the "first day" of busing to attain a desegregated school system in Cleveland. A three-phase implementation plan was enacted to balance the schools racially. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: September 10, 1979
Arriving at School, Phase 2 of Desegregation Implementation Pupils arrive at Thomas Jefferson Junior High, 3145 West 46th St. on first full day of Phase 2 desegregation from the east-side Glenville neighborhood. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: March 24, 1980
Cross-town Busing The east to west thoroughfares in Cleveland were popular bus routes for students. This routine site marked the landscape during the 1980's as buses crossed the Harvard-Denison bridge through the city's southern neighborhoods and industrial flats. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: December 11, 1979
School Board President and Treasurer Cited for Contempt Between 1977 and 1981, contentious court challenges regarding the organization, planning, and implementation of desegregation orders were commonplace in Cleveland's Federal District Court. Here, Board President John Gallagher and Tresurer Paul Yacobian leave court after having been arrested for contempt of court. Source: The Cleveland Press Collection, Michael Schwartz Library, Cleveland State University. Date: September 2, 1981


Cleveland, OH | CMSD Board of Education


Jim Lanese, “The Desegregation of Cleveland Public Schools,” Cleveland Historical, accessed December 3, 2023,