Sweatt v. Painter

views updated

Sweatt v. Painter

Through much of the 1930s and 1940s, the legal staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pursued an "indirect" strategy against segregation in public education. The NAACP reasoned that black exclusion from white schools might be most immediately challenged in graduate and professional schools, because separate black facilities had not generally been provided by states enforcing segregationand would likely prove too expensive to provide. Accordingly, in 1946 the organization backed Heman Sweatt, an African-American postal employee from Houston, in a suit to compel his admission to the University of Texas School of Law. Segregation in education had been mandated by the state constitution and endorsed in Plessy v. Ferguson, but no black law school existed in Texas. Rather than force university president T. S. Painter to admit Sweatt, however, state courts allowed Texas to make efforts to provide "substantially equal" segregated facilities. The state authorized its black college to expand professional programs, provided for the establishment of a new black university and law school, and, as a stopgap measure, opened a temporary law school for blacks in an Austin basement.

In response, NAACP lawyers, led by Thurgood Marshall, more directly attacked separate-but-equal doctrine. They argued that no newly minted Jim Crow school could offer an education comparable to that of a longstanding and prestigious state institution, but also that segregation itself was intellectually indefensible. Though state appellate courts denied Sweatt's petitions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 1950 that the Fourteenth Amendment's "equal protection" language required his admission to the University of Texas. Blacks could not receive a substantially equal legal education in existing segregated facilities, because they did not compare to the University of Texas School of Law either in material resources or in less tangible realms, such as reputation and prestige. Though the Court did not thereby abandon the separate-but-equal precedent, it made it more difficult to apply. More important, Sweatt foreshadowed the more exacting definitions of equality that would shape the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ; Fourteenth Amendment; Marshall, Thurgood; Plessy v. Ferguson


Gillette, Michael. "Herman Marion Sweatt: Civil Rights Plaintiff." In Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times, edited by Alwyn Barr and Robert Calvert. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1981.

patrick g. williams (1996)