George McLaurin and the Ongoing Fight Against Systemic Racism in Higher Education

Jun 02, 2020

During this time of tremendous racial turmoil, happening alongside a national pandemic, we must reflect on the significance of this moment in the history of higher education and on what is at stake.

I want to start by highlighting the story of George McLaurin, a trailblazer and unsung hero in higher education. In 1948, George McLaurin applied to the University of Oklahoma for his graduate degree and, like many African American students at that time, he was denied admission on the basis of his race. He took his issue to federal court and won admission to OU.

His battle was far from over, however.

The picture below shows George McLaurin sitting in the closet in Carnegie Hall, Room 104, the spot he was forced to occupy, separate from his peers in 1948, even after he had won admission to the university. For two years he took his classes from that closet at University of Oklahoma, the only African American student on a campus of 12,174.

George McLaurin at University of Oklahoma (1948). Photo credit: Library of Congress

Despite these horrible conditions and the undeniable alienation that came with such unjust conditions, he fought boldly for his access to education.

He eventually took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. The justices affirmed that McLaurin’s 14th Amendment rights means he must receive the same educational experience as OU’s white students. McLaurin won his case on the same day that Heman Sweatt won a similar case, also in the Supreme Court, against the University of Texas School of Law, making these two cases a turning point in striking down segregation in higher education.

McLaurin, like so many other students of color and low-income students in America, believed in the idea captured so eloquently by Horace Mann when he stated: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

And so for decades, even after George McLaurin sat in that closet, marginalized students—black students, Hispanic students, Native American students, low-income students—continued to enroll in higher education and attempt to navigate a system that was never created with their success in mind. These students were denied opportunities. They were overlooked. Their lived-experiences were dismissed and were treated as “the others” for decades. Yet they continued to pursue their education and the promise of a better life.

Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.
Horace Mann

They continued to pursue equality.

Almost 70 years later, we still face persistent equity gaps nationally in college enrollment and completion rates by students of color and low-income students. Black students, for example, complete college at rates that are 20 percentage points lower than their white counterparts.

In 2017, the federal government set a goal for our society: To support 60 percent of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 in earning a two- or four-year college degree by the year 2020.

We’re not there—and not by a long-shot. In 2017, Dr. Michael T. Nettles, a nationally recognized scholar on educational assessment and policy, published a study that used census projections and historical college enrollment data to forecast the feasibility of realizing that goal. Dr. Nettles has an extensive career in education policy that includes serving on President Obama’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans and being appointed by two U.S. Secretaries of Education to serve on the National Assessment Governing Board.

Based on his analysis, Nettles predicted that the nation, overall, would reach the 60-percent goal for degree attainment mark by 2041. However, without aggressive action, African American men, Native Americans and Hispanics would be unlikely to reach that mark even by 2060—the most distant date the study could project.

Source: M.T. Nettles, “Challenges and Opportunities in Achieve the National Postsecondary Degree Attainment Goals.” (2017)

While we have made gains in equal access to education and dismantling segregation, the system of higher education continues to fail students of color and low-income students. The inequities that continue to persist for these student groups reflect the deep flaws in our system. We cannot continue to ignore this.

That means how we respond to the current crisis and the issues unraveling across higher-ed institutions matters more than ever.

As the field of higher education grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, we must be conscious of the risk of undoing decades of progress by reintroducing inequalities into the higher education system and so exacerbating the students we are trying to serve and support.

How can we prevent more problems? The solutions we provide to the COVID-19 crisis must:

  1. Be guided by an equity lens
  2. Incorporate anti-racist strategies
  3. Hold students at the center

What we do now—this week, this month, this year—matters. We must continue to honor the legacy of George McLaurin and all those who came before and after him by fighting for full access to education and educational achievement for all students, by every means necessary. It’s our turn to be bold and continue the fight to dismantle the systematic racism and injustices that have plagued higher education for decades.


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