McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents
339 U.S. 637 (1950)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 339 U.S. 637 (1950)

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

No. 34

Argued April 3-4, 1950

Decided June 5, 1950

339 U.S. 637

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA

Syllabus

Appellant, a Negro citizen of Oklahoma possessing a master's degree, was admitted to the Graduate School of the state supported University of Oklahoma as a candidate for a doctorate in education and was permitted to use the same classroom, library and cafeteria as white students. Pursuant to a requirement of state law that the instruction of Negroes in institutions of higher education be "upon a segregated basis," however, he was assigned to a seat in the classroom in a row specified for Negro students, was assigned to a special table in the library, and, although permitted to eat in the cafeteria at the same time as other students, was assigned to a special table there.

Held: the conditions under which appellant is required to receive his education deprive him of his personal and present right to the equal protection of the laws, and the Fourteenth Amendment precludes such differences in treatment by the State based upon race. Pp. 339 U. S. 638-642.

(a) The restrictions imposed upon appellant impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession. Pp. 339 U. S. 640-641.

(b) That appellant may still be set apart by his fellow students and may be in no better position when these restrictions are removed is irrelevant, for there is a constitutional difference between restrictions imposed by the State which prohibit the intellectual commingling of students and the refusal of students to commingle where the State presents no such bar. P. 339 U. S. 641.

(c) Having been admitted to a state supported graduate school, appellant must receive the same treatment at the hands of the State as students of other races. P. 339 U. S. 642.

87 F.Supp. 528 reversed.

The proceedings below are stated in the opinion. The judgment below is reversed, p. 339 U. S. 642.

Page 339 U. S. 638

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we are faced with the question whether a state may, after admitting a student to graduate instruction in its state university, afford him different treatment from other students solely because of his race. We decide only this issue; see Sweatt v. Painter, ante, p. 339 U. S. 629.

Appellant is a Negro citizen of Oklahoma. Possessing a Master's degree, he applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma in order to pursue studies and courses leading to a Doctorate in Education. At that time, his application was denied, solely because of his race. The school authorities were required to exclude him by the Oklahoma statutes, 70 Okl.Stat. (1941) §§ 455, 456, 457, which made it a misdemeanor to maintain or operate, teach or attend a school at which both whites and Negroes are enrolled or taught. Appellant filed a complaint requesting injunctive relief, alleging that the action of the school authorities and the statutes upon which their action was based were unconstitutional and deprived him

Page 339 U. S. 639

of the equal protection of the laws. Citing our decisions in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada,305 U. S. 337 (1938), and Sipuel v. Board of Regents,332 U. S. 631 (1948), a statutory three-judge District Court held, 87 F.Supp. 526, that the State had a constitutional duty to provide him with the education he sought as soon as it provided that education for applicants of any other group. It further held that, to the extent the Oklahoma statutes denied him admission, they were unconstitutional and void. On the assumption, however, that the State would follow the constitutional mandate, the court refused to grant the injunction, retaining jurisdiction of the cause with full power to issue any necessary and proper orders to secure McLaurin the equal protection of the laws.

Following this decision, the Oklahoma legislature amended these statutes to permit the admission of Negroes to institutions of higher learning attended by white students, in cases where such institutions offered courses not available in the Negro schools. The amendment provided, however, that, in such cases the program of instruction "shall be given at such colleges or institutions of higher education upon a segregated basis." * Appellant

Page 339 U. S. 640

was thereupon admitted to the University of Oklahoma Graduate School. In apparent conformity with the amendment, his admission was made subject to

"such rules and regulations as to segregation as the President of the University shall consider to afford Mr. G. W. McLaurin substantially equal educational opportunities as are afforded to other persons seeking the same education in the Graduate College,"

a condition which does not appear to have been withdrawn. Thus, he was required to sit apart at a designated desk in an anteroom adjoining the classroom; to sit at a designated desk on the mezzanine floor of the library, but not to use the desks in the regular reading room, and to sit at a designated table and to eat at a different time from the other students in the school cafeteria.

To remove these conditions, appellant filed a motion to modify the order and judgment of the District Court. That court held that such treatment did not violate the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, and denied the motion. 87 F.Supp. 528. This appeal followed.

In the interval between the decision of the court below and the hearing in this Court, the treatment afforded appellant was altered. For some time, the section of the classroom in which appellant sat was surrounded by a rail on which there was a sign stating, "Reserved For Colored," but these have been removed. He is now assigned to a seat in the classroom in a row specified for colored students; he is assigned to a table in the library on the main floor, and he is permitted to eat at the same time in the cafeteria as other students, although here again he is assigned to a special table.

It is said that the separations imposed by the State in this case are in form merely nominal. McLaurin uses the same classroom, library, and cafeteria as students of other races; there is no indication that the seats to which he is assigned in these rooms have any disadvantage

Page 339 U. S. 641

of location. He may wait in line in the cafeteria and there stand and talk with his fellow students, but, while he eats, he must remain apart.

These restrictions were obviously imposed in order to comply, as nearly as could be, with the statutory requirements of Oklahoma. But they signify that the State, in administering the facilities it affords for professional and graduate study, sets McLaurin apart from the other students. The result is that appellant is handicapped in his pursuit of effective graduate instruction. 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.

Our society grows increasingly complex, and our need for trained leaders increases correspondingly. Appellant's case represents perhaps the epitome of that need, for he is attempting to obtain an advanced degree in education, to become, by definition, a leader and trainer of others. Those who will come under his guidance and influence must be directly affected by the education he receives. Their own education and development will necessarily suffer to the extent that his training is unequal to that of his classmates. State-imposed restrictions which produce such inequalities cannot be sustained.

It may be argued that appellant will be in no better position when these restrictions are removed, for he may still be set apart by his fellow students. This we think irrelevant. There is a vast difference -- a Constitutional difference -- between restrictions imposed by the state which prohibit the intellectual commingling of students and the refusal of individuals to commingle where the state presents no such bar. Shelley v. Kraemer,334 U. S. 1, 334 U. S. 13-14 (1948). The removal of the state restrictions will not necessarily abate individual and group predilections, prejudices, and choices. But, at the very least, the state will not be depriving appellant of the opportunity

Page 339 U. S. 642

to secure acceptance by his fellow students on his own merits.

We conclude that the conditions under which this appellant is required to receive his education deprive him of his personal and present right to the equal protection of the laws. See Sweatt v. Painter, ante, p. 339 U. S. 629. We hold that, under these circumstances, the Fourteenth Amendment precludes differences in treatment by the state based upon race. Appellant, having been admitted to a state-supported graduate school, must receive the same treatment at the hands of the state as students of other races. The judgment is

Reversed.

* The amendment adds the following proviso to each of the sections relating to mixed schools:

"Provided, that the provisions of this Section shall not apply to programs of instruction leading to a particular degree given at State owned or operated colleges or institutions of higher education of this State established for and/or used by the white race where such programs of instruction leading to a particular degree are not given at colleges or institutions of higher education of this State established for and/or used by the colored race; provided further, that said programs of instruction leading to a particular degree shall be given at such colleges or institutions of higher education upon a segregated basis."

70 Okla.Stat.Ann. (1950) §§ 455, 456, 457. Segregated basis is defined as "classroom instruction given in separate classrooms, or at separate times." Id., § 455.

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