CHARLOTTE, N.C. - On both sides of the issue, they say the same thing: It's not about race.
But with a group of white parents heading to federal court today seeking to halt busing and other school integration measures, it is perhaps more accurate to say this: It is about race, but it's not only about race.
"What Charlotte is struggling with," says Ricky Woods, senior pastor of the city's oldest black Baptist congregation, "is the moral soul of its community."
The parents' lawsuit has touched a deep nerve here, tapping into the city's sense of both its past and its future.
Charlotte holds a proud place in the annals of civil rights - it is where a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling first put students on buses for the purpose of integrating schools. The effect of Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education was swift: The next year, more than 100 school districts across the country followed Charlotte's lead and began busing, and that became the primary tool to racially balance the nation's classrooms.
Many of those communities, though, have long since abandoned it - with white flight to the suburbs, no amount of busing can integrate those city school districts like Baltimore's that have become largely black - but Charlotte clung to it and other diversity-enhancing measures.
But now, the city that led the nation into busing could become the city that ushers its end.
"It's time to move on," says Larry Gauvreau, one of the parents who sued Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the city-county public education district. "The school board is invested in a tired, worn-out policy."
The parents' case
Arguments in the lawsuit filed by Gauvreau and six other plaintiffs will be heard today by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. The parents want Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to stop using students' race in determining where they attend school. Instead, they seek a return to neighborhood schools and open access to magnet programs that previously required admission through separate black and white lotteries.
The lawsuit, initially filed in 1997 and expected by some to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, has thrown the schools into turmoil. While students have not been transferred from school to school as court rulings have gone one way and then another, the prospect of what will happen once the lawsuit is decided looms large.
Even young students grasp what is at stake.
"If they do move everyone to their neighborhood schools, it would make each school all one race," says Jordana Weiner, 12, a middle school pupil. "It would undo all the work they've done to get people together."
While some Charlotte neighborhoods are integrated, it is no different from other cities in that people tend to live among their own race. An analysis by the Charlotte Observer several years ago estimated that if students were sent to the schools closest to their homes, about 56 percent of them would be in classrooms with little or no racial diversity.
The trend nationally is for school districts to request - and usually receive - court rulings that say they have integrated their schools as much as they possibly can and thus are free from previous orders to desegregate. As a result, schools are re-segregating to levels comparable to pre-civil rights days.
Call it diversity fatigue - a sense that when it comes to the fight for integration, it's time to either declare victory and move on or simply call off the decades-old battle.
"I think people have made their choices by where they choose to live," says Scott Willard, another of the parents suing the school system. "I don't know what society can do but give people the opportunity to live where they want to live. Life is not a level playing field."
Willard says his children are bused 10 miles from home, passing six closer schools, to attend an elementary school that was specifically built midway between black and white neighborhoods for integration purposes. But teachers, he says, were not given adequate resources to deal with the students from impoverished backgrounds who have greater needs - by which he means the black students.
"This school system- I call them the board of integration - in their quest, in this social experiment, has probably taught kids the opposite of what it intended," Willard says. "My children don't understand there are middle class black families like us. They think all black people are poor, and have other issues, other family issues."
While Willard pointedly notes that his children are bused a greater distance to the school than black children, such talk rankles those who say that the burden of integration efforts has always been on the minorities.