The Sweatt v Painter case of 1950 is an important but often overlooked landmark in the progress of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, writes Angelita Williams.
Sweatt v Painter
In February 1946, Heman Sweatt, a young African-American mail carrier, applied for admission to the University of Texas’ School of Law. Upon reviewing the young man’s application, the school refused admission on the grounds that Texas schools prohibited integrated education. Despite the fact that much of the nation already embraced integration, states in the Deep South – including Texas and Alabama – had resisted integration. Using the “separate but equal” doctrine established by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, states were allowed to resist racial integration as long as the separate facilities they created for African Americans were of – you guessed it – equal condition.
Sweatt and his lawyer Thurgood Marshall challenged the UT School of Law in 1950, saying that the law school UT considered equal to theirs – the Texas State University for Negroes – was in no shape or form equal to the University of Texas’ School of Law, given that the UT Law School had 16 full-time professors and the Texas State University for Negroes only had 5 full-time professors; the UT Law School had 850 students and a 65,000-volume law library, while the Texas State University for Negroes only had 23 students and a 16,500-volume library; and the University of Texas Law School had many graduates working in public and private law practice, while the Texas State University for Negroes only had one graduate admitted to the Texas Bar Association.
According to Gary M. Lavergne, author of “Before Brown: Heman Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road to Justice,” the Sweatt case was actually very well planned out by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): “What some may not know is that Sweatt was integral to an NAACP master plan aimed at breaking down racial segregation in education. Or that UT was selected as the target school in part because students at the time overwhelmingly favored integration. Or that if there was any place in the country where separate but equal could be debunked, it was Texas. With all its oil money, if Texas couldn’t build a separate and equal university of the first class for African Americans, no one could,” he said.
Supreme Court Ruling
When the case was brought up to the Supreme Court, the court ruled in favor of Sweatt, saying that the UT School of Law had failed to create a school of equal status in its faculty members, student progresses, and university facilities. Although the case was a favorable ruling for Sweatt – who was allowed to attend the UT Law School – it did not completely do away with the separate but equal doctrine, which remained in place for a few years longer.
Just four years after Sweatt v. Painter, another Supreme Court Case – Brown v. Board of Education – came up and overturned the separate but equal doctrine. As a result of the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed state-sponsored segregation, was thrown out. It is commonly said that had Sweatt V. Painter occurred just four years earlier, the Brown v. Board case would have never succeeded in doing away with Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling.
Angelita is a freelance writer and education enthusiast who frequently contributes to onlinecollegecourses.com.