I became deeply involved in the Malverne School Busing Case after receiving a telephone call from the Executive Director of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. A group of residents of the Malverne School District (officially known as the Union Free School District #12 of the Town of Hempstead) had been to her office to complain about the lack of school busing for the essentially black community of Lakeview which was part of the Malverne School District. Though she had advised them that the law was far from clear and that there was a good chance they would lose any legal proceeding they brought, they were still willing to take their chances. She called me because I had some familiarity with the matter since, at the request of the American Jewish Congress, I had previously prepared an amicus brief on behalf of a number of local clergy who had supported the original concept of integrating the Malverne School District. In addition, I was the head of the Long Island Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights and, in that capacity, had worked in the Malverne District with local people supporting integration and with an organization called UCAN (United Committee for Action Now).
The legal history of the school district and the underlying facts in the case were quite complex. The Malverne School District consisted of three elementary schools, one in northern Lynbrook, one in the Village of Malverne itself, and one in the unincorporated area of Lakeview, the only area of the three which was not lily white but, in fact, almost entirely black. In 1963 NYS Education Commissioner James Allen had ordered the District to institute the “Princeton Plan” which divided the three schools into different grade levels in order to force integration. But because the parents from north Lynbrook and the Village of Malverne did not want their children to attend the Lakeview school (in the black neighborhood), they took the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The court, however, upheld Allen’s order.
As a result, in 1967 a compromise was reached which closed the Lakeview school but provided busing to all students who lived six tenths of a mile or more away from school. The black community agreed to this compromise, agreeing to suffer the exclusive burden of racial integration as a magnanimous act of social and civic responsibility to avoid the continuing tumult, essentially in order to “keep the peace.” But despite the fact that the intra-district busing was an essential ingredient of this amended integration plan, in 1971 the State of New York withdrew assistance for transportation in the district; the district taxpayers followed by rejecting any payment for the busing even though the cost to the individual taxpayer would have amounted to no more than about thirteen dollars per year. In response the federal government proposed abandoning the three-school plan and paying for the building of a large elementary school, to be provided free of charge but in a referendum the local residents voted this down. The local community went on to vote down budgets or resolutions calling for the resumption of district-supported transportation another nine times.
In now pursuing a lawsuit against the Malverne School District, we would have to argue that the intra-district busing had been part of an integration agreement and order and, as a result, the busing was required, whether the community liked it or not. I met with the group and we decided to give the case our best shot even though victory was not at all certain. I was to be a cooperating attorney with the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and it goes without saying that this was a pro bono case. The group bringing the suit consisted of about twenty residents (if I remember correctly, seventeen were black and three were white) with whom I would meet every ten days or so. These clients were absolutely unusual. They got along without any arguments, seemed to like each other (and even me!), and everybody pitched in to help.