Civil rights - sweatt vs painter

Civil Rights - Sweatt vs Painter

In 1946, Heman Sweatt, an intelligent and well qualified African-American man, at the behest of the National Association of Colored Peoples (NAACP), applied for admission to the University Of Texas School Of Law. In so doing, however, he ran squarely into the lingering effects of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). There, the Court established the "Separate but Equal" Doctrine, opining that "the [Equal Protection Clause of the] Fourteenth Amendment ...could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social...equality. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures" (Id. at 544).

One of the states to which the Supreme Court referred, of course, was Texas. For, under Article VII, Section 7 of the contemporaneous version of the Constitution of the State of Texas, "[s]eparate schools [were to] be provided for the white and colored children, and impartial provision...made for both (Tex. Const. art. 7, § 7, 1876). Although Mr. Sweat, admittedly, fulfilled every requisite qualification for admission to the school, his application was denied solely on the basis of that state constitutional provision Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629, 631 (1950).

In response, the NAACP, under the guidance of future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, brought suit in state court on behalf of Mr. Sweatt, alleging that, since no comparable law school existed within the State of Texas for African-American students, Mr. Sweatt could not be denied admission, but rather must be admitted to the University (Id.). On first impression, the trial court judge, while recognizing that denying the plaintiff the opportunity to gain a legal education, while granting it to others, deprived him of the equal protection of the laws, as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, nevertheless, continued the case for six months to provide the State, and University of Texas President, Theophilus S. Painter, an opportunity to satisfy the mandates of the Plessy decision (Id. at 631- 632). The University took advantage of the opportunity thus afforded and quickly adopted an order providing for the establishment of a law school for African-American students (Id.). Although this school was not functional at the end of the original six month continuance, the trial court found sufficient the State's intent and ruled in favor of the defendants (Id.).

As Mr. Sweatt, and the NAACP, planned their appeal in state appellate court, the University set about creating its parallel institution for African-American students.

The resulting, interim " law school, to be named the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes, was to be located in the basement of a state office building in Austin, and open early in 1947, with no independent faculty or library (Id. at 633).[1] Mr. Sweatt refused to enroll (Id.).

The Texas Court of Civil Appeals set aside the trial court's judgment and remanded the case back to the trial court, where a hearing was held on the issue of whether the educational facilities at the newly established school were substantially equal to those of the University of Texas Law School (Id. at 632). This would continue to be the salient issue for the remainder of the case. At the conclusion of this hearing, the trial court held that the upstart school did, indeed, offer Mr. Sweatt "privileges, advantages, and opportunities for the study of law substantially equivalent to those offered by the State to white students at the University of Texas;" and the Texas Court of Civil Appeals affirmed in Sweatt v. Painter, 210 S.W.2d 442 (1948).

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Mr. Sweatt, and the NAACP, squarely presented, and convincingly argued, that the new facility set up by the state was, in no way, the equal of the University of Texas School of Law, and represented little more than a desperate attempt at appeasement (Sweatt, 339 U.S. 629, 632-634, 1950). The State, meanwhile, maintained that the separate but equal mandates of Plessy v. Ferguson required that the decision of the lower court be affirmed. The Court agreed with Mr. Sweatt. While the University of Texas School of Law "may properly be considered one of the nation's ranking law schools," Justice Vinson wrote for the Court, such could not be said for either version of the law school for African-American students (Id. at 633). "In terms of number of the faculty, variety of courses and opportunity for specialization, size of the student body, scope of the library, availability of law review and similar activities, the University of Texas Law School is superior, " noted the Court (Id. at 633-634). Moreover, Justice Vinson continued, in no way could the new institution compare with the University of Texas School of law in terms of more intangible measures, either (Id. at 634).

Although the decision in Sweatt was a vitally important step in the creation of justice in the United States, it is imperative to take note of what it did not do: By finding that the competing law schools at issue in the case were not equal on their face, the Court was able to avoid until another day the bigger question whether separate, in and of itself, also meant unequal. Thus, Plessy v. Ferguson, and its noxious separate but equal doctrine, was able to survive a while longer. However, with his landmark victory in Sweatt in hand, Thurgood Marshall was able to set his sights squarely on his ultimate goal, the destruction of Plessy. He would soon attain this goal with his transcendent victory in the collected cases that, together formed Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) In Brown, of course, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court overruled the 1896 decision and found that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," (Id. at 495), and, in so doing sent a death knell to segregation in the schools of the United States.

Rather unsurprisingly, the Brown decision was met with a whirlpool of criticism, and generated widespread controversy, particularly in the South. In Virginia, for example, Senator Harry Byrd, issued the so called "Southern Manifesto, " in which he called for "massive resistance" to integration of the schools (102 Cong. Rec. 4515-16, 1956) This document, which was the brainstorm of South Carolina Senator, Strom Thurmond, was subsequently signed by 19 Senators and 82 Representatives from across the South (Id.). Interestingly, in an expression used frequently today among members of the Republican Party, the signatories hoped, among other things, to 'reaffirm [their] reliance on the Constitution as the fundamental law of the land." (Id.)

The upheaval wrought by the Brown decision, however, was not confined to the political arena. Many members at the vanguard of Southern business banded together with citizen leaders across the South to form chapters of a new organization named the White Citizen Councils (Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. (n.d.) Among other tactics, this white supremacist group, in yet another move reminiscent of the scare tactics used by some in response to the recent health care legislation, attempted to conjure up fear by painting particularly specious effects of integration (Id.).

It was amid this turmoil that the U.S. Supreme Court then issued its decision in Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218 (1964), or, as the case is colloquially known, Brown II. Faced with the problems and impediments to integration created by Senator Byrd's "massive resistance" campaign in Virginia, the Court made it the responsibility of the U.S. District Courts to implement school desegregation and ordered that they do so "with all deliberate speed." (Id. at 234).

Few today can argue the correctness of the Court's decision in Brown v. Board, or the case that came before it, and upon which it so heavily relied, Sweatt v. Painter. Few cases exist, moreover, that were of greater importance, and so directly affected the lives of so many.


102 Cong. Rec. 4515-16 (1956).

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218 (1964).

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).

Sweatt v. Painter, 210 S.W.2d 442 (1948).

Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).

Tex. Const. art. 7, 7, (1876).

Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. (n.d.) Timeline. Retrieved May 20, 2010 from

[1] Ultimately, the State did open the Texas State University for Negroes in Houston with "a faculty of five full-time professors; a student body of 23; a library of some 16,500 volumes serviced by a full-time staff; a practice court and legal aid association" (Id. at 633). This law school, at Texas Southern University, is today named the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

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