McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950)

George McLaurin in class, Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The court case McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents for Higher Education (1950) due to its impact on segregation within an institution of higher education, represented the stepping stone to Plessy’s inevitable overruling. It not only paved the way for the end of what Michael J. Klarman calls the “Plessy Era” but preceded  the famous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) court cases.

On January 1948, the University of Oklahoma rejected the application of George McLaurin, a retired professor seeking a PhD in School Administration. The reason for his rejection focused solely on race and as a result McLaurin filed suit, demanding admission into the university due to lack of PhD programs for blacks in the state of Oklahoma. The Federal District Court ordered the University of Oklahoma to immediately admit McLaurin into the program on October 13, 1948 when classes would begin. Nonetheless, McLaurin faced constant segregation within the institution, such as the classroom, cafeteria, library and restroom areas. He quickly filed suit in 1950, arguing that his treatment had “handicapped him his pursuit of effective graduate instruction.” The court opinion, delivered by Judge Vinson resulted in 9-0, a unanimous consent for the petitioner. The significance of this court decision demonstrates the intolerance for segregation in higher education, and as Klarman notes in, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004) that Judge Clark observed “‘the forces of progress in the South’ were already eroding segregation in higher education” (210).

The exhibition “With an Even Hand” from the Library of Congress, gives helpful resources concerning the trajectory of segregation in American history. An illustrative time-line highlights the importance of cases such as Sipuel v. Board of Regents (1948), Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma (1950), all court cases that crumbled Plessy’s social context of  separate but unequal in higher institutions and enforced the idea “that segregated legal education could no longer be defended on the basis of black inferiority.” (209). Recent scholarship on the subject matter by law professors Robert J. Cottrol, et. al. in Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 2003), although focuses on Brown, the authors trace McLaurin as well as other cases on the gradual end of segregation in education (available in Dickinson Library). While updating newly found information from other blog posts the book by Waldon E. Martin Jr., Brown v. Board of Education: a brief history with documents (New York, 1998). His book give an account of of black individuals opinions over cases such as McLaurin and education from the Chicago Defender, a black activist newspaper. The Joural of Negro Education and Journal of Blacks in Higher Education wrote articles in which it emphasizes the importance of pre-Brown cases and the struggle of segregation on education.

The Masters thesis  by John T. Hubbell, “The Desegregation of the University of Oklahoma, 1946-1950” provides the most notable works focusing on the McLaurin case and  gives detailed description,  first hand accounts and documentation on the court case. Along with Hubbell, Ollie Everett Hatcher’s Ed. D. dissertation also provides detailed history of public education in Oklahoma focusing directly about segregation (available in the Library of University of Oklahoma). Dr. Frank A. Balyeat provides a general overview of racial context of Oklahoma in “Segregation in the Public Schools of Oklahoma Territory”. Additionally, Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice: the history of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s struggle for equality (New York, 1975) also intertwines McLaurin’s importance as an evolution of the social struggle of the black community (available in Dickinson Library).

George McLaurin’s case demonstrated that justice Black, Burton, Clark, Douglas, Frankfurter, Jackson, Reed and Vinson, along with McLaurin’s lawyers Robert L. Carter, Amos T. Hall came to identify the reaction of social acceptance, tolerance, and above all else, nonviolent reaction of whites to rulings specifically dealing with higher education. This would contrast drastically to the reactions that followed Brown.

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