The Legacy of Sweatt v. Painter

Mail Carrier and Civil Rights Activists Heman Sweatt
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The landmark Supreme Court case of Sweatt v. Painter, which involved the University of Texas School of Law, left its mark on Austin and the larger struggle for civil rights.

Background

In 1946, Heman Marion Sweatt applied for admission to the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. Then-UT President Theophilus Painter, following the advice of the state attorney general, rejected Sweatt's application on the grounds that Texas' constitution prohibited integrated education.

With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Sweatt filed suit against the university seeking admission. At that time, no law school in Texas admitted African Americans. A Texas court continued the case, which gave the state time to establish a separate law school for blacks in Houston.

That school became Texas Southern University; its law school was later named after Thurgood Marshall, one of the lawyers who presented Sweatt's case to the U.S. Supreme Court and who served as the court's first African-American justice.

Supreme Court Ruling

Texas courts backed the state's policy based on the "separate but equal" doctrine established by the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. In the Sweatt v. Painter case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the separate school established for blacks lacked "substantive equality" for a number of reasons, including the fact that the school had fewer faculty members and an inferior law library and other facilities.

In addition, Marshall argued that a separate black law school was not sufficient because a key part of a lawyer's education must be debating ideas with people from a variety of backgrounds. The court's decision affirmed Sweatt's right to equal educational opportunity, and in the fall of 1950, he entered UT's law school.

Legacy

The Sweatt ruling helped pave the way for desegregation at all levels of public education and served as a precedent for the Brown v. Board of Education decision that was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

The UT School of Law now has a professorship and scholarship named after Sweatt, and the school hosts an annual symposium on the effect of the Sweatt case on diversity and education. UT's Tarlton Law Library houses many archival sources, oral history interviews and published works on the case as well as a complete set of appellate briefs and the transcript of the original district court trial.

In 2005, the Travis County Courthouse — where the original case was tried — in downtown Austin was renamed in honor of Sweatt; a bronze plaque with his story stands outside the entrance.