Lead plaintiff in Supreme Court busing case was also a missionary in India

The Rev. Darius Swann and his wife, Vera, are flanked by family members and friends at Burke Presbyterian Church in Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Church (USA) via The Washington Post)

The Rev. Darius L. Swann, whose efforts to send his young son to a racially integrated school in Charlotte, North Carolina, spurred a Supreme Court decision that unanimously endorsed busing, igniting a national debate over tactics to unravel segregation in public schools, died March 8 in Centreville, Virginia. He was 95.

The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Vera Swann.

Ordained a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the late 1940s, Rev. Swann became the denomination’s first black missionary in a non-African country, spending three years in China before traveling to India with his wife, a fellow missionary.

They had just moved to Charlotte when, in 1964, they attempted to send their son James to Seversville Elementary, an integrated school a few blocks from their home. The 6-year-old returned in tears, with a note from the principal explaining that his family needed to send him to an all-black school down the road before they could apply to transfer him to an integrated school.

That note launched the Swanns on a legal odyssey that saw them become the lead plaintiffs in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a 1971 Supreme Court case in which the justices upheld court-ordered busing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district and opened the gates for the use of busing as a desegregation tool nationwide.

In the years that followed, protests and occasional riots broke out against busing, which infuriated many white families and divided African Americans who typically bore the brunt of the effort, riding buses that took them to predominantly white neighborhoods. Public opinion turned sharply against the measure even though it was found to promote racial integration, with evidence emerging that it improved outcomes for black students at no cost to their white peers.

Subsequent court rulings dismantled busing programs around the country, although the system became a source of civic pride during the nearly three decades it lasted in Charlotte. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive skyline or its strong, growing economy,” the Charlotte Observer wrote in a 1984 editorial. “Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools.”

By the time the Supreme Court issued its busing ruling, Rev. Swann and his family were long gone from North Carolina, having moved to New York, Hawaii and finally India, where Rev. Swann was completing his research for a doctorate in Asian theater. He later taught religion and drama at George Mason University in Virginia and the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.

“Of course we were pleased – a little progress has been made,” Vera Swann said by phone, recalling the court ruling. “But we knew the system. It didn’t mean that everything was rosy and so forth. It meant that it was a start. We could accept that, as long as the courts were supporting the judgment.”

Raised in poverty on a Virginia farm, Rev. Swann spent more than a decade in India with his wife, with whom he founded a Christian drama program that told Bible stories through Indian music and theater. His work there inspired him to pursue a PhD and later co-write a book, “Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance.”

It also reshaped his views on race and civil rights. Immersing himself in Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to social change, he returned to the United States optimistic about the country’s progress since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and eager to enroll his son in an integrated school.

“Having lived practically all of his life in India, James has never known the meaning of racial segregation,” Rev. Swann wrote to Charlotte’s board of education, according to journalist Frye Gaillard’s book “The Dream Long Deferred.” “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 insure that this healthy development continue.”

Rev. Swann’s appeals were unsuccessful. While the Supreme Court had ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed” after Brown, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were moving slowly, with only 2% of the district’s black students attending integrated schools by 1965, according to a report in Slate.

The Swanns began working with civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, who filed a lawsuit in January 1965 on behalf of the Swanns and nine other families, leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg to develop a limited new desegregation plan. Three years later, after the Supreme Court ruled that districts had a duty to eliminate racial discrimination “root and branch,” the case was reopened and took on a new dimension.

A federal judge, James McMillan, ruled in 1969 that Charlotte had operated two “dual systems” on the basis of race and ordered the district to fully integrate its schools, using busing if necessary. The buses rolled the next year under a court-approved plan, later upheld by the Supreme Court, that sent Charlotte reeling: Chambers’s car and offices were firebombed, with bombs exploding at his home as well; McMillan received death threats and was burned in effigy.

Over the years, however, busing became a Charlotte institution.

“It was really a dramatic story to see it unfold,” Gaillard, a former Charlotte Observer reporter, told The Washington Post in 2019. “A city diving into the implications of its segregated past, going through all sorts of turmoil and ugliness for a few years and then coming out the other side. There was this perverse Southern pride: ‘We can do it, and they can’t do it in Boston.’ ”

Elsewhere in the country, substantial integration followed in large, metropolitan school districts “that consolidated the suburbs with the central city schools,” limiting white flight, according to Matthew Lassiter, a University of Michigan historian and busing scholar. But a 1974 Supreme Court decision blocked further efforts to consolidate urban and suburban districts, effectively reaffirming a segregated system of white suburbs and black inner cities, with no busing from one to the other.

Many of the country’s remaining busing programs were dismantled in the 1990s – including in Charlotte, which joined cities such as Nashville and Cleveland in being named officially desegregated, even as many black parents insisted that their children still received inferior educations.

The youngest of 10 children, Darius Leander Swann was born in Amelia County, Virginia, on Nov. 26, 1924. He worked his way through college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1945 from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, a historically black school affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Remaining on campus, he graduated from Smith Theological Seminary three years later and departed for China, teaching English and Bible classes at the University of Nanking.

Rev. Swann reconnected with a Smith undergraduate, Vera Poe, after returning to Charlotte. They married in 1952 and sailed to India, working out of the northern city of Allahabad, where Rev. Swann served as a chaplain at Ewing Christian College and developed a welcoming, pluralistic approach to evangelism.

“If you put aside the imperialistic approach to mission that says, ‘We’ve come to save you from darkness and hell,’ and adopt a position that says, ‘God has spoken in various ways to various people at various times,’ then it opens you to look for things that enlighten you, that come from below, from the people that traditional missionaries lost,” he said, according to the book “100 Americans Making Constitutional History.”

On leave from his missionary work, Rev. Swann received a master of sacred theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1959, with a focus on religious drama. He and his wife taught at Johnson C. Smith University when they returned to Charlotte.

Rev. Swann later received a doctorate from the University of Hawaii in 1971 and helped establish the Maria Fearing Fund to promote spiritual growth and cultural exchange between African peoples on the continent and across the diaspora.

He retired from teaching in the mid-1990s and lived with his wife and daughter, Edith Swann, at her home in Centreville. They survive him, in addition to his son, James Swann of Atlanta; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

“Ultimately, we have to have an integrated society for us to survive. But I do not see it being practiced right now,” Rev. Swann told the Observer in 1996, three years before a federal judge ordered Charlotte to end its busing program.

“I feel black people have made huge efforts to try to integrate society, and we have not been successful,” he added. “So we feel that any energies we have to devote to that should be directed at improving things in our community and hoping that integration will come.”

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