A Voice for Access and Equity
After serving on the Georgia board of regents for 30 years, Elridge McMillan is honored with lifetime achievement award
By Tracie Powell
When Elridge McMillan became the second Black trustee to serve on the University of Georgia System Board of Regents in 1975, his Afro and past advocacy made colleagues think he was a militant Black man. They didn’t think he’d last.
“Folks were a little bit timid of me,” McMillan recalls. Now, 30 years later, McMillan was recently honored for his length of service to the state’s higher education governing board with a first ever lifetime achievement award in his name. He is the longest serving regent on the board.
McMillan came to the board seven years after the state’s flagship, the University of Georgia, had been desegregated by judicial order. McMillan wasn’t directly involved in that fight, but took up the drumbeat for access and equity in education. At age 70, he continues this same cadence today.
“He has served as a regent for over 30 years, (and) in that period of time he’s been the voice of consciousness,” says Dr. Joseph “Pete” Silver, vice president of academic affairs at Savannah State University, one of three historically Black colleges that falls under the purview of Georgia’s higher education system. Silver worked for McMillan earlier in his career.
“He has clearly been the voice for access and equity, and he’s been very forward thinking,” Silver adds. “He’s been a very visible leader on the complex issues, and he’s never ducked any of the hard ones. He’s also been a very visible supporter of the historically Black colleges and universities in the system. For me, I have appreciated that because over the years, there has been various and varying support of the HBCUs. But he has shown steady support while holding them to great accountability.”
A graduate of historically Black Clark College in Atlanta, McMillan’s parents were both civil rights activists — his father a United Methodist minister and his mother a teacher. He was reared in the Jim Crow South, which prevented him from pursuing a career in journalism as he’d wanted. Instead, McMillan earned a teaching certificate and became an elementary school teacher. After five years in separate-but-equal classrooms, he was promoted to a counseling position responsible for tracking student absenteeism, but a deepening resentment of segregated schooling forced McMillan to consider ways to affect broader change. He applied to graduate school, and because segregation laws prevented him from attending a school in Georgia, the state paid for him to matriculate at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York.
Upon returning to Georgia, McMillan secured stints with the federal Office of Economic Opportunity as well as the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). He joined SEF in 1968, the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and when America was in the throws of the Black Power Movement and antiwar protests. Legal segregation had been declared unconstitutional, Black students had successfully challenged racist admission practices at public universities and the federal government was monitoring and enforcing anti-discrimination laws.
Challenging the status quo
Despite the changes, most southern states ignored desegregation orders. Historically, according to a book published about the history of the foundation under McMillan’s leadership, the SEF “respected” southern cultural norms and therefore played a quiet advocacy role in achieving justice and equality. Then came McMillan.
His administration sought to dismantle outdated practices more aggressively by illuminating educational injustices and offering strategies for change. He asserted the foundation’s commitment to Blacks and equality and became engrossed in a civil rights case known as Adams v. Richardson. The ruling found 10 states in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for supporting segregated schools. The states were ordered to work actively to integrate institutions, so long as that integration was not carried out at the expense of HBCUs.
Since then, McMillan has helped the Kresge Foundation establish an initiative to help HBCUs strengthen their fund raising and institutional advancement. He also championed an initiative to increase college enrollment of Georgia’s Black men. Known as the African American Male Initiative, the program is still in its infancy, but already results show a 9.6 percent increase among Black men enrolled in higher education, said University System of Georgia Chancellor Tom Meredith.
McMillan is currently one of less than a handful of Blacks who sit on the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents. The system oversees 34 institutions of higher learning.
McMillan, who was appointed to the board of regents in 1975 by Gov. George Busbee and reappointed continuously since then, has lasted as long as he has because he knows how to articulate what the board ought to be doing. His strategy is simple, observers say. He shows other regents how policies and practices impact all disadvantaged and poor communities, not just Blacks.
As the state watched Black enrollment at its flagship shrink in recent years, McMillan articulated the urgency of the matter by relating the critical absence of Black students to the declining representation of White students from rural communities on the campus as well.
“As we grapple with issues that would be reflective of earlier desegregation discussions, he helps frame those issues for us in a way that makes it easier to understand,” says Meredith, adding that McMillan’s input is invaluable. “He has understanding and empathy for those we are serving in higher education who are less fortunate.
“Someday he will leave the board, but he has left a sensitivity among board members to the issues for which he has always spoken,” Meredith continues. “One of his legacies will be that he won’t have to be there every day for the issues to be on the concern level on our board of regents. That’s a great compliment.”
McMillan looks upon his years of service and believes he should get back in touch with his journalistic roots and write a book — if he can find the time, as there is still work to be done. On his short list, McMillan wants to create more need-based scholarships.
And though others consider him a walking legacy, McMillan humbly shares credit for his accomplishments with others who’ve been in the trenches with him.
“There were several small victories that ended up being big ones,” McMillan said from his home in Atlanta. “There are very few things that I’ve accomplished that were done alone. All that has been done, everything stems from creating educational opportunities for our young people. That’s what all this has been about.”
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