McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, an important case leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, struck down the Oklahoma statute that mandated segregation in education. The case began when the University of Oklahoma denied George W. McLaurin admission to its graduate program in education, citing the segregation statute, which made it a misdemeanor to operate a school where both blacks and whites were taught. McLaurin filed suit in federal court in Oklahoma City. In an opinion marked by balance--even caution--a three-judge panel struck down the law, to the extent that it prohibited McLaurin from attending the University of Oklahoma.
Even though the university could no longer deny McLaurin a place in school, it tried to segregate him on campus. He had to sit by himself in a separate section of the classroom, sit at a separate desk in the library, and sit at a different table (and sometimes eat at different times) from the rest of the students in the cafeteria. The federal court in Oklahoma City upheld the discrimination, observing that the Constitution "does not abolish distinctions based upon race . . ., nor was it intended to enforce social equality between classes and races." Such reasoning, though common in courts up to that time, was about to lose all legitimacy.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard McLaurin's appeal in April 1950 and in June unanimously reversed the lower court. Chief Justice Fred Vinson, writing for the court, held that the differential treatment given to McLaurin was itself a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause: "Such restrictions impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession." McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) signaled that the Supreme Court would no longer tolerate any separate treatment of students based on their race.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637, 640 (1950). McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 87 F. Supp. 526 (W. D. Okla. 1949). Mark Tushnet, Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Alfred L. Brophy
© Oklahoma Historical Society