Sweatt v. Painter

  • October 28, 2010
    Education Policy
    Before Brown
    Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice
    Gary M. Lavergne

    By Gary M. Lavergne, director of admissions research for the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of four books.

    Writing about race is emotional and difficult. Telling the story of Heman Marion Sweatt was a task in which I took great care. For the few who know the story, it is generally known that he was a mail carrier from Houston who applied for admission to University of Texas School of Law in February of 1946 and that the University of Texas President Theophilus S. Painter followed Texas's Constitution, statutes, and an attorney general's opinion and rejected Sweatt's application "...save and except for the fact that he is a negro [sic]."

    It is not generally understood that Heman Marion Sweatt was at that time an integral key to an NAACP master plan aimed at breaking down racial segregation in education. His lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the first African American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, took Sweatt v. Painter to the highest court, and the result was that Sweatt became the first African American ever ordered admitted to an all-white institution. The 1950 opinion predated Brown v Board of Education, which explicitly ended legal racial segregation in the United States. In my book, Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice, I argue that the Court in Sweatt had already implicitly done so by prohibiting Sweatt's "isolation from . . . individuals and institutions" that he would have to eventually deal with as a lawyer. Moreover, "equality," as the Court defined it under Sweatt, required that law students be exposed to the "interplay of ideas and exchange of views." After Sweatt, any judicially acceptable separate equality became a practical impossibility.