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Since the colonial period, white colonist used a white supremacist ideology to justify slavery. Even following the American Revolution, the strength of such racism made it difficult for African-Americans to gain freedom, citizenship, and equality as promised by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Following Union victory in the Civil War, Congress passed and the states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 which guaranteed equal justice under law for all American citizens. Throughout the late nineteenth century southern whites used black codes, all-white primaries, and segregation to treat blacks as second class citizens.


Persistence attempts to halt the advancement of African Americans in society, led black leaders to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples in 1909. In 1930 the NAACP hired white attorney Nathan Marigold to draw up a plan for resisting segregation, particularly in public education. The subsequent Marigold Report reported that a legal strategy of creating test cases which could then be argued in federal courts, particularly the Supreme Court, as the most effective way of overturning Jim Crow laws.


By adopting a strategy of legally challenging segregation, the members of the NAACP legal defense team understood that they would be taking on a series of entrenched precedents such as Article VII, Section 7 of the Texas Constitution in 1876 which demanded that "[s]eparate schools shall be provided for the white and colored children, and impartial provision shall be made for both." and the “separate but equal doctrine” formulated by the U.S. Supreme Court case of  Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Over the next forty years southern political leaders would draw on these documents to dodge judiciary critique and questioning. Despite such substantial barriers to civil rights, from the 1930s through the 1960s NAACP attorneys began to set their own judicial precedents. In 1935 Lloyd Gaines sued the University of Missouri for rejecting his law school application on racial grounds. Three years later the Supreme Court ruled that his denial violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, and state efforts to create an alternative law school failed to relieve school officials of a legal obligation to provide legal education for Missourians regardless of race. In Sipuel v. Oklahoma (1948) the Supreme Court once again ruled that denying admission to a public law school based on race was unconstitutional, and the state must, “must provide such education for her in conformity with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.... as soon as it does for applicants of any other group.” The precedents created by these cases directly challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson and set the stage for Sweatt v. Painter (1950)


Born in 1912, Heman Marion Sweatt grew up in Houston’s Third Ward district. Graduating from Wiley College in 1934 Sweatt worked as a mail carrier where he witnessed whites routinely keeping African Americans from advancing through the ranks of the post office. Becoming a local secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, Sweatt developed an interest in the law. In 1946, Heman Marion Sweatt applied to the University of Texas School of Law, but his application was denied. Per Article VII, Section 7 of the Texas Constitution University officials alleged that they had full authority to deny Sweatt based on his race regardless of his exemplary qualifications. With the support of the NAACP Sweatt sued UT President Theophilis Shickel Painter in Travis County District Court. At trial, Sweatt and his attorney, Thurgood Marshall, asserted that his rejection by the UT Law School violated his 14th amendment equal justice rights. On June 17, 1946, Judge Roy C. Archer granted university officials six months to provide a “substantially equal” law school for African-Americans. Although UT officials failed to create such a law school, the Texas A&M University board of regents passed a resolution to create a law school for black Texans. Seizing upon this development, Archer dismissed Sweatt’s lawsuit. The Texas Court of Civil Appeals agreed with the lower court’s decision and the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the case. A year later Texas A&M completed its Houston based law school, which was clearly smaller and less well funded than comparable white dominated institutions. Sweatt and Marshall reargued their case before the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of certiorari on April 4, 1950. Heman Sweatt argued that his denial for admission to law school based on Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine violated the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th amendment. Theophilis Painter responded that he had only upheld the Texas Constitution and had worked in good faith to create a law school for African Americans. From the Painter’s point of view, the resources and quality of education between both schools were equal.



Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case


There were two prominent constitutional issues in this case. 


1. Did the University of Texas admission process inherently violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment?

2. Does Article VII of the Texas Constitution grant the state the authority to distinguish between students of various races when considering applications for admission?


Citation and Decision

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


Speaking for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson ruled that Sweatt’s denial of admission violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. Although the state had built a “law school” designed specifically for African American students, the disparity in relation to access of resources and structure were too great for such an institution to be feasibly considered “equal”. The Court recognized that the alternative university lacked equality in relation to faculty, legal writing opportunities, library resources, and recognition. Separating African American students from the majority of UT law students severely hurt their chances of advancement in the legal profession. African American students should therefore be enrolled into the University of Texas School of Law provided that they met the same qualifications as white students.


Although now free to pursue his legal education at the University of Texas, Sweatt eventually dropped out due to the stress surrounding his legal battles. He later earned a M.A. in Community Organization from Atlanta University and became a community activist for the NAACP and the National Urban League.


Discussion Questions


1. How did the NAACP organize and carry out its campaign against the school segregation in Texas?


2. Why did the NAACP target racial segregation in higher education before that in K-12 schools?


3. Why did White Southerners resist school desegregation?


4. What was the difference between the Supreme Court decisions in Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Board of Education?


7. What is the lasting significance of Sweatt v Painter?


Before Brown

The NAACP's Legal Strategy against Segregated Education 

Oyez: Sweatt v. Painter

Sweatt v. Painter (University of Texas School of Law)

National Park Service: Racial Voting Rights


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