Sweatt v. Painter, 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case that outlawed segregation in graduate education, providing a legal basis for Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

After decades of challenging state-imposed segregation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1946 joined in a lawsuit that paved the way for its eventual victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The case, Sweatt v. Painter, originated when Heman Sweatt, an African American letter carrier, was rejected on racial grounds for admission to the University of Texas law school. Following his protest, a district court ordered Texas to provide a law school for black students. Rather than accept the state's attempts at compliance first by appending law classes to a black vocational school, then by renting rooms in an office building and hiring three part-time law professors Sweatt chose to pursue his case.

Sweatt was represented by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The NAACP's longstanding strategy paradoxically based on Plessy v. Ferguson, an earlier case that defended segregation was to force states into choosing between providing expensive "equal" graduate schools and admitting black students to existing schools. In Sweatt and a related case, McLaurin v. Oklahoma, Marshall went further. Using sociological and psychological testimony, he argued that a segregated education, however comparable the physical facilities, was inherently unequal in that it denied black students interaction with classmates, access to extracurricular activities, and the status and alumni network of established white schools.

In a sign of the case's significance, several groups filed amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs when it reached the Supreme Court. Eleven southern states argued in support of Texas's segregation, while nearly 200 law professors signed a brief backing the NAACP. Perhaps the most influential amicus brief was presented by the U.S. Justice Department. For the first time, the U.S. government said it was time to overturn Plessy.

The justices, however, were not prepared to go that far. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice Fred Vinson declared that Heman Sweatt was denied an equal legal education in the segregated school. But the cautious opinion declined to comment on the constitutionality of "separate but equal." Despite this shortcoming, Sweatt and its companion cases helped prepare the court for its most significant civil rights case of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

 

Contributed By:

Kate Tuttle