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TURES COLUMN: Years before Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation came to higher education

Schoolkids are required to study, or at least memorize, the Plessy v. Ferguson case and the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Almost completely ignored is the way the Supreme Court took on the so-called “Separate But Equal” Doctrine when it came to colleges and universities, with landmark rulings years earlier than the celebrated Brown case of 1954.  We’re coming up on the anniversary where several were decided on June 5, 1950.

It may surprise you to know that the lone dissenter on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld Louisiana’s segregationist policy on railcars, was Justice John Marshall Harlan, one of the only Southerners on the court, a former slaveholder from Kentucky, and ex-opponent of the 13th Amendment. But the unfair Jim Crow laws and the cruel opposition to Reconstruction changed him. Harlan, who rightly predicted it would be the worst decision since the Dred Scott case, argued that this kind of state discrimination against personal liberty would have no end. 

“Further, if this statute of Louisiana is consistent with the personal liberty of citizens, why may not the state require the separation in railroad coaches of native and naturalized citizens of the United States, or of Protestants and Roman Catholics?” he wrote in his famous dissent.  If you can discriminate against race, you can discriminate against any aspect of a human trait or choice.

But the push of liberty against discrimination had its gains, as FDR’s Executive Order went against any defense industry discrimination, and Truman desegregated the military, a year before Jackie Robinson earned his right to be treated equally in baseball, something that critics of the Democratic Party withhold from you as they rail against Dixiecrats on race.

And then there’s Sipuel v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1948.  Ada Lois Sipuel, a minister’s daughter, challenged Oklahoma’s segregationist policies when she sought admission to the University of Oklahoma’s law school, the only taxpayer funded one in the state.  Only four days after arguments, the Supreme Court (loaded with Roosevelt and Truman appointees) ruled that Oklahoma must provide instruction for Blacks and Whites, knocking down the “all-white” state rules.

John Paul Stevens (a Ford nominee, confirmed by Congress to the Supreme Court in the 1970s) observed Ada Sipuel was “not only an excellent student, but was welcomed by her classmates who did not agree with the exclusionary policy that the State had unsuccessfully tried to defend,” showing that the students were more respectful than the opportunistic state politicians who promoted segregation in a play for votes.

Two years later, the Supreme Court also unanimously ruled twice on against the so-called “Separate But Equal” laws.  In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, the court learned that Oklahoma admitted George W. McLaurin to law school “but provided him separate facilities, including a special table in the cafeteria, a designated desk in the library, a desk just outside the classroom doorway, and sometimes even made him eat at different times than the other students.” The Supreme Court correctly showed that Oklahoma focused more on the separation than the equality. That same June 5 day, the court demonstrated in Sweatt v. Painter that the hastily constructed law school for blacks was woefully under-resourced in terms of professors, law library volumes, facilities, and that Herman Marion Sweatt deserved admission to the University of Texas law school.

While there’s nothing wrong with studying the Brown case, other education cases deserve analysis too, as they showed states that promised “separate but equal” couldn’t even provide anything close to “equal.” These cases, many argued by Thurgood Marshall, paved the way for the better-known Brown case of 1954.