Marlene White
Where Oklahoma City stands on civil rights today

"Sometimes I get frustrated because I think Oklahoma is coming late to the party."Marlene White, Langston University professor

Marlene White is used to the surprised looks by now. They appear when she meets new people and tells them where she works — as a professor at Langston University.

“They see a white-haired, white woman named White teaching at a historically black institution, and that seems to blow their cork,” White laughed.

Langston is Oklahoma’s only historically black college and White feels right at home there. During a long career as an educator and administrator, she developed a strong connection with minority communities in the state. It began when White was about 13. That’s when she read in the newspaper about Clara Luper’s lunch-counter sit-ins.

“I wanted to go down and walk with the marchers, the sit-in folks, with Clara Luper,” White said. “My parents said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

White, 69, grew up in southwest Oklahoma City, attended Central State College, and received a doctoral degree from the University of Oklahoma. She worked for the state Department of Education and served on the board of directors for Oklahoma City’s Urban League chapter, fighting for the rights of the state’s minority students. She fought to get more and better-trained minority teachers into the classroom.

Today, as she shares her classroom with mostly black students, she’s found that the stereotypes ingrained in the pre-civil rights era continue to evaporate.

“For the most part, we’re much more similar than we are different, by and large across cultures,” White said. “I think we’re becoming more aware of our own diversity.”

White said black college students have more opportunity than ever to succeed. But when she takes a wide-angle look at a number of social issues facing many Oklahoma minorities, White wonders if more couldn’t be done to ensure equality for everyone.

“Sometimes I get frustrated because I think Oklahoma is coming late to the party,” White said. “Once we discover inequities and correct them, we behave as if we are the first discoverers of those inequities. And we certainly are not.”

- Kyle Fredrickson, kfredrickson@opubco.com