Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book Review

Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice
By Gary M. Lavergne
University of Texas Press, 354 pages

Reviewed by Stuart Stern
South Texas College of Law
Office of Development & Alumni Relations

The Postman Cometh: The Integration of UT School of Law

South Texas students are undoubtedly familiar with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the two most well-known legal cases affecting the racial composition of public schools in the United States. But few, I’d venture, have heard of Sweatt v. Painter (1950). Yet this Texas case was called “the big one” by none other than Thurgood Marshall, who argued both Sweatt and Brown before the U.S. Supreme Court—and won each of them. For Sweatt, which was heard by the Court in 1950, resulted in the desegregation of the University of Texas School of Law and paved the way for Brown four years later.

In his engrossing book Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice, Gary M. Lavergne presents the stories of plaintiff Sweatt, a black Houstonian, and his attorney Marshall, the star counsel of the NAACP, and depicts the painstaking groundwork that was laid by Marshall and his legal team to achieve victory in the landmark case. (The Painter they opposed was acting UT president Theophilus S. Painter.)

Heman Marion Sweatt was what we would today term a second-career student, which adds to the impressiveness of his accomplishment and makes him an intriguing figure. Sweatt was a thirty-seven-year-old mailman with a wife, an undergraduate degree in biology earned sixteen years previously, and a house on Delano Street in the Third Ward. In one of the ironies of the case, Sweatt, who said he wanted to be a lawyer when he applied, in 1946, for admission to UT, had originally wanted to be a doctor. But it was Sweatt who had stood up, when no one else did, at an NAACP meeting in a neighborhood church the previous fall to volunteer to be the plaintiff in a law school–desegregation suit the association was planning to file. He would later describe this turning point in civil rights history as a “brash moment.”

Lavergne, a UT Austin administrator and the author of four previous books, leads us up to this moment with his meticulous descriptions of a variety of interrelated historical threads: the history of public higher education in Texas, including the funding of both UT and Texas A&M through the profits of a very bountiful oil field; the history of the NAACP, including that of its outspoken Texas branches; the cases the NAACP took on in Texas prior to Sweatt to desegregate the state’s Democratic-primary elections (the only primaries held at the time); and the nature of life in both Houston and Austin during the first half of the twentieth century, a period in which the black and white citizens in each of these cities were rigidly divided by the racial caste system of the times.

Despite the segregation that characterized Austin, the UT campus itself during the 1940s and ’50s showed the first glimmers of open-mindedness that would later come to symbolize the capital city. The student newspaper, The Daily Texan, “exhibited a surprising liberalism,” according to one black educator. Following the denial by President Painter of Sweatt’s application to UT, a group of students formed an all-white campus branch of the NAACP. And two years later, in 1948, according to Lavergne, “UT polls indicated that nearly six in ten students approved of the desegregation of their campus, especially the graduate and professional schools.”

That wouldn’t happen, however, for another two years. Sweatt v. Painter went from the 126th District Court, in Austin, in 1946 to the Third Court of Civil Appeals, also in Austin, in 1947. The following year, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the case, and in November of 1949 it went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The following April, the Court heard oral arguments in Sweatt, and two months later, in June of 1950, issued a unanimous verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

In the meantime, the state of Texas had attempted to conform to the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson by providing more funds for Prairie View A&M University and, in 1947, establishing the Prairie View Law School, in downtown Houston (which generated no applicants); the Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University), in Houston (which generated 2,300 applicants and immediately became the largest African-American university in the South); and the School of Law of the Texas State University for Negroes, in Austin (which enrolled three students).

Although TSU became known as “the House that Sweatt Built,” Sweatt refused to attend either its makeshift law school, which consisted of four rooms in an Austin office building, or the Prairie View Law School, which comprised three rooms in a Houston office building. He was determined to go to UT, and the Supreme Court agreed that he should. In its ruling, the Court stated:
Whether the University of Texas Law School is compared with the original or the new law school for Negroes, we cannot find substantial equality in the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the State. In terms of the number of 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. . . .

What is more important, the University of Texas Law School possesses to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school . . . [including the] reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige. It is difficult to believe that one who had a free choice between these law schools would consider the question close.
Heman Sweatt began classes at UT School of Law in September of 1950, and I will leave it to the reader to explore the bittersweet denouement of his complex story. Of significant note is that the portion of the UT campus known as the Little Campus, located at 19th and Red River streets, was renamed the Heman Sweatt Campus in 1988, and that the courthouse where his case was originally heard was renamed the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse in 2005.