In Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine that it had articulated in the late 19th century in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This “separate but equal” doctrine became the legal basis for racial segregation in schools, colleges, universities, and the wider American society. In Brown, the Court, building on its earlier precedent from disputes in higher education, declared that racially segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Less well known than Brown is a series of earlier cases in which the Supreme Court undermined racial segregation in higher education: Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938) and the companion cases of McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950). In Sweatt, perhaps the most famous of these cases, the Court ruled that officials at the University of Texas had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in denying admission to the law school to Heman Sweatt, an African American, because of his race. Rejecting the efforts of officials to provide a separate law school for African Americans as an acceptable alternative, the Court held that the University of Texas had to admit him to its law school. In light of the impact that Sweatt played in dismantling segregated higher education and beyond, this entry reviews its background and the Court’s analysis in ruling.
Facts of the Case
Heman Sweatt sought admission to the University of Texas Law School in 1946, but his application was rejected solely because of his race. Sweatt then sued in state court, seeking an injunction to require law school officials to admit him to study. At the time Sweatt filed suit, there was no law school in the state of Texas for African Americans. A trial court acknowledged that Texas violated Sweatt’s right to equal protection by denying him an opportunity to obtain a legal education while providing that opportunity to Whites. Even so, the court did not grant Sweatt the relief that he sought. Instead, the court continued Sweatt’s suit for six months to give the State of Texas time to establish a separate law school for African Americans.
In 1947, the state legislature enacted legislation establishing the Texas State University “for the sole purpose of creating a separate but equal school of law for Negroes and to prevent Heman Sweatt’s admission to the University of Texas Law School” (Butler, 1997, p. 45). The law school admitted its first class of students that same year, and in 1950 graduated its first student, Henry Doyle. Doyle later became the first African American to be appointed to a state appellate court in Texas.
When Sweatt refused to enroll in the newly created law school, a state trial court maintained that the school for African Americans offered him an opportunity for studying law that was substantially equivalent to the one provided to White students at the University of Texas Law School. Accordingly, the court denied Sweatt’s request for relief, and an appellate court affirmed in favor of the law school. After the Supreme Court of Texas refused Sweatt’s application for a writ of error in 1948, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari. In response to Sweatt’s suit, the attorneys general for 11 Southern states filed amici curiae, literally, “friend of the court,” briefs supporting Texas’s position that it had no constitutional duty to admit the plaintiff to the University of Texas Law School.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Vinson, the Supreme Court reversed in favor of Sweatt, reasoning that the State of Texas had not provided him with opportunities to study law that were “substantially equal” to those afforded to White students who were eligible for admission to the University of Texas Law School. The Court ruled that on the basis of the size of the faculty, the array of courses, the opportunities for specialization in different areas of the law, the size of the student body, the scope of the library, and the availability of a scholarly law review and similar activities, the University of Texas Law School was superior to the newly established law school for African Americans. The Court added that the University of Texas Law School had a far greater degree of the qualities that were incapable of objective measurement but that made for greatness in a law school. According to the Court, the qualities that could not be measured included the reputation of the faculty, the experience of the administration, the position and influence of the school’s alumni, its standing in the community, its traditions, and its prestige.
The Supreme Court elaborated on its rationale by pointing out that a law school cannot be effective if it operates in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts. From the Court’s perspective, few students would have chosen to study law in an academic vacuum wherein they were removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the law is concerned. As the Court observed, the law school where the State of Texas was willing to allow Sweatt to study would have excluded racial groups that made up 85% of the state’s population and most of the lawyers, witnesses, jurors, judges, and other officials with whom Sweatt would inevitably have been dealing when he became a lawyer. In light of the substantial and significant segment of society that the actions of state and law school officials sought to exclude, the Court rejected the notion that the education they offered Sweatt was substantially equal to that which he would have received had he been admitted to the University of Texas Law School.
Based on a finding of inequality in educational opportunities, the Supreme Court concluded that the Equal Protection Clause required the State of Texas to admit Heman Sweatt to the University of Texas Law School. The Court’s rationale considered both tangible and intangible factors, presaging similar analysis in Brown. In noting that the law school for African Americans was not equal to the state’s premier law school, the Court implied that the establishment of professional schools solely for African Americans could never be considered equal for purposes of Fourteenth Amendment analysis by the federal courts.
The law school that the Texas legislature founded for African Americans in 1947 continued to operate and became one of the nation’s leading law schools for producing African American law graduates. In 1976, the law school was renamed Thurgood Marshall School of Law in honor of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It is located on the campus of Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas, and has one of the most racially and ethnically diverse student bodies of any law school in the United States.
See also equal protection analysis
Butler, M. L. (1997). The history of Texas Southern University Thurgood Marshall School of Law: “The house that Sweatt built.” Thurgood Marshall Law Review, 23, 45–53.
Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 339 U.S. 637 (1950).
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 377 (1938).
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).