Sweatt v. Painter (1950)

 In Michael J. Klarman’s book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (Oxford, 2004), he examines the Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and its importance to the civil rights movement. Klarman studies not only the case itself, but also the social and political context in which the case was decided and how the decision was subsequently received. Sweatt v. Painter essentially invalidated Plessy v. Ferguson‘s 1896 ”separate but equal” doctrine, and while it “did not necessarily doom other sorts of segregation,” it did lay the groundwork for the monumental 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision (211).  

Heman Sweatt standing in line at the University of TexasIn 1946, Heman Sweatt, a black man, applied to the School of Law at the University of Texas, which, like all other Texas law schools at the time, refused to admit blacks. When his application was rejected, Sweatt sued the school, whose president was named Theophilus Painter. The Texas trial court delayed the ruling for 6 months to give the state time to build a separate law school just for blacks. The court claimed that “separate but equal” facilities had been set up and when Sweatt appealed to the Texas Supreme Court he was again denied. When the NAACP and Sweatt brought the case to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson delivered an opinion on behalf of the unanimous Court that invalidated Texas’ claims and ordered Sweatt’s admittance. While many officials argued that the separate school’s facilities were in no way inferior to the white university’s, “the Court’s focus on intangibles in Sweatt… was unprecedented” (208). The justices noted that the school was inferior in the number of books and faculty, and specifically that intangibles like a lack of experience or prestige made the black school unequal in the study of law. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Court ruled that Sweatt’s segregation “denied him the opportunity to interact with whites,” which meant that “equal legal education was impossible with ‘such a substantial and significant segment of society excluded” (207). Essentially, the segregation would prevent the interaction and competition that were a crucial component of a law student’s education, and that separate was thus not equal. The Court ruled that for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the University of Texas must immediately admit Sweatt.   

The unanimous decision by the Vinson court was anything but easy, and many justices were troubled by the decision (208). There was a question of existing precedent and Klarman even says that the decision revoked, “at least in the contect of higher education, a separate-but-equal doctrine that had been almost universally endorsed by lower courts…for three-quarters of a century” (289). To understand the decision, it is best to try to understand the individuals involved and the “social and political change” of the times (209). A very recent book by Gary M. Lavergne titled Before Brown: Heman Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice (2010) examines Heman Sweatt himself, the Sweatt case, and the ramifications it had for the 1954 Brown decision. Mark Whitman, a professor of history at Towson State University, has edited several volumes on the Brown era that pertain to the Sweatt case, the most recent of which is Brown v. Board of Education: a Documentary History (2004). M. Christopher Brown II published an article in the Journal of Negro Education on the importance of cases like Sweatt prior to the Brown ruling, titled “Collegiate Desegregation as Progenitor and Progeny of Brown v. Board of Education” (Vol. 73, Summer 2004). There are also several interesting and relevant articles available on JSTOR that were published just years after the Sweatt ruling: John P. Roche’s “The Future of ‘Separate but Equal’” (Phylon, no. 13, 1951) and W. Astor Kirk and John Q. Taylor King’s “Desegregation of Higher Education in Texas” (Journal of Negro Education, vol. 27, 1958). For a good analysis of the Brown era and a collection of primary sources, see Waldo E. Martin’s Brown v. Board of Education: a Brief History with Documents (1998).   

There are few books that pertain directly to Sweatt v. Painter, other than the aforementioned Lavergne book. Information on the Vinson court that decided the case can be found in several helpful sources. C. Herman Pritchett’s Civil Liberties and the Vinson Court (2003) comes highly recommended by American National Biography, and Michal R. Belknap presents a concise and clear study of the court in his book: The Vinson Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (2004). A study of several of the justices who served on the Vinson court can be found in New Deal Justice: the Constitutional Jurisprudence of Hugo L. Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert H. Jackson (1996) by Jeffrey D. Hockett. For information on Vinson himself, see James E. St. Clair and Linda C. Gugin’s comprehensive Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: a Political Biography (2002). There has been less published recently about the other justices (Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, and Sherman Minton) but there are several works that can be found on Google Books that examine their jurisprudence as well as their personal lives. Heman Sweatt’s NAACP-appointed lawyer was future Chief Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who has had much written about him. Two of the best books for examining his legal career and thoughts as they pertain to Sweatt v. Painter are Mark V. Tushnet’s Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961 (1996) and Brenda Haugen’s Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Lawyer and Supreme Court Justice (2007).

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