In 1963, a group of black parents and the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP decided to challenge Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s system of segregated schools. The NAACP asked civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, a native of North Carolina who had recently graduated at the top of his class from the University of North Carolina law school, to represent them. Chambers was familiar with racial discrimination: despite his stellar academic record, he couldn’t attend school dances at UNC because he was black. The lead plaintiffs in the case were Darius and Vera Swann, college graduates who had spent the last several years as missionaries in India before moving back to Charlotte. While in India, they read with distress about the integration experience of Dorothy Counts in 1957. The Counts were close family friends, and Dorothy had been a flower girl in the Swanns’ wedding.
When they returned to Charlotte, the Swanns wanted their son James to continue the kind of integrated schooling he had experienced in India. However, James was assigned to Biddleville Elementary, an all-black school at a distance from his home. After unsuccessful appeals to the school board and superintendent, the Swanns joined the case against Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Judge Braxton Craven heard the case in July 1965, and ruled that the school district was not constitutionally required to create a plan to desegregate. The plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth District Court, but the district judges upheld Craven’s ruling and the Swann case was thought to be over.
In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in a case called Green v. County School Board that the New Kent County, Virginia, school district must implement a desegregation plan that resulted in a school system "without a 'white' school and a 'Negro' school, but just schools". Many desegregation supporters saw this ruling as a sign that the courts would now require school districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, to desegregate. Others argued that the New Kent County ruling couldn’t be applied to Charlotte. New Kent was a small rural school district, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg was one of the largest in the nation, with almost 83,000 students and more than one hundred schools.
Encouraged by the Green decision, the NAACP decided to reopen the Swann case in 1969. The case was seen by federal district Judge James McMillan, who was from Robeson County, North Carolina, and had lived in Charlotte for several years. In court, attorney Julius Chambers argued that Charlotte was heavily segregated by race, due to housing discrimination, and that segregation also carried over to its schools. Voluntary or "token" desegregation had not been effective; only when the district actively assigned students to schools to achieve racial balance, he contended, would desegregation be successful.