Gary Lavergne, author of "Before Brown: Heman Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall and the Long Road to Justice," delivered the opening presentation of the 25th Annual Heman Sweatt Symposium to a standing-room-only crowd on January 27.
Students, faculty, staff and community members vied for a spot to hear Lavergne discuss why the case Sweatt v. Painter remains so important 60 years after the decision was made to allow Heman Marion Sweatt to enter The University of Texas School of Law.
Lavergne’s book and presentation honored Sweatt, the first African American admitted to the School of Law in 1950. Members of the Sweatt family were on hand for the noon presentation and a family panel discussion later that evening in John Hargis Hall.
In his presentation, Lavergne set the stage for the lawsuit by discussing important factors in Sweatt’s life and in the civil rights movement at the time, including two prior cases undertaken by the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He discussed a cast of characters that included University of Texas at Austin President Theophilus S. Painter, Texas attorney generals Grover Sellers and Price Daniel, attorneys Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, and William Durham, preacher Albert Lucas, Wiley College teacher Melvin Tolson, civil rights activist Lulu Belle White, and Houston newspaper editors Carter Walker Wesley and Clifton Richardson. Each had a role in the Sweatt story.
Crucial to Sweatt’s story, of course, are NAACP attorneys Thurgood Marshall and W.J. Durham, who made the decision to try Sweatt's case against the university.
“The choosing of a plaintiff is a serious matter,” explained Lavergne. “Number one, you have to choose someone who's qualified to be a plaintiff in the first place, and then secondly, someone who has the courage to see the case through. We're not talking about an afternoon walk in the park here. We're talking about a person deciding that he is going to have his or her name in this case, associated with four years of very, very bitter litigation for civil rights in the old confederacy.”
The NAACP had already spent $25,000 on the 1938 case Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. That case marked the beginning of reconsideration of the separate but equal education upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson. In the Gaines case, the Supreme Court found in favor of plaintiff Lloyd Gaines, and asked the Missouri Supreme Court to reconsider his case; however, by then Gaines could not be located and there is no single account of what happened to him.
In what Sweatt later called a “brash moment,” he volunteered to be the plaintiff in a new case against The University of Texas Law School. The rest, as they say, is history. On Feb. 26, 1946, Sweatt officially applied for admission to the university's Law School. On June 17th, 1946, in the 126th court, Judge Roy Archer ruled that Texas had failed to provide a substantially equal law school for African American Texans, but he didn't order Sweatt admitted. On February 1, 1947, the state opened the Prairie View Law School in Houston, which was supposed to be equivalent to the university's School of Law, but as Lavergne pointed out, had a faculty that consisted of two divorce attorneys. Not a single applicant applied, so the school closed its doors two weeks later.
In early March of that year Texas Governor Beauford Jester signed into law Senate Bill 140 which created what was then called The Texas State University for Negroes. Today, it is Texas Southern University. At the time it was in the basement of a building in downtown Austin. The registrar sent Heman Sweatt a letter informing him that he had been accepted to the TSUN Law School, this time in Austin. “Here's another little interesting tidbit,” said Lavergne. “Heman Marion Sweatt was accepted to a law school he never applied to.”
In the end, the case went to the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued that separate but equal was inherently unequal. The court ruled in favor of Sweatt, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, noting that there were a number of intangibles beyond just the physical building that made a difference in a law school education. The court noted that factors such as the experience of the law school professors and the status and prestige of the alumni made a difference, just as the quality of the library and the physical facility did.
When the decision was made, Marshall called Sweatt on the telephone. He told Sweatt, "You are entitled to the fullest credit for a job well done. If it had not been for your courage and refusal to be swayed by others, this victory would not have been possible.” Heman Marion Sweatt was the ideal plaintiff after all. He entered The University of Texas School of Law in the fall of 1950.
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