On February 26, 1946, an African American from Houston applied for admission to the University of Texas School of Law. Although he met all of the school’s academic qualifications, Heman Marion Sweatt was denied admission because he was black. He challenged the university’s decision in court, and the resulting case, Sweatt v. Painter, went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Sweatt’s favor. The Sweatt case paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka rulings that finally opened the doors to higher education for all African Americans and desegregated public education in the United States. In this engrossing, well-researched book, Gary M. Lavergne tells the fascinating story of Heman Sweatt’s struggle for justice and how it became a milestone for the civil rights movement. He reveals that Sweatt was a central player in a master plan conceived by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for ending racial segregation in the United States. Lavergne masterfully describes how the NAACP used the Sweatt case to practically invalidate the “separate but equal” doctrine that had undergirded segregated education for decades. He also shows how the Sweatt case advanced the career of Thurgood Marshall, whose advocacy of Sweatt taught him valuable lessons that he used to win the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 and ultimately led to his becoming the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
1954's Brown v. Board of Education is the one of the most celebrated Supreme Court civil rights rulings, but the dry run against racial segregation began four years earlier, when Heman Marion Sweatt, an unassuming Houston mailman, emerged victorious in the struggle against the University of Texas Law School's admissions policies. Focusing on the lead-up to the Sweatt v. Painter case, and the case itself (which proves somewhat anticlimactic), Lavergne provides a penetrating, if occasionally dry, history of the carefully calibrated NAACP-led fight against intractable state officials at a time when there were no professional or graduate schools for blacks in most southern states; "Heman Sweatt will never darken the doors of the University of Texas," remarked the Texas attorney general at the time. Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice who led Sweatt's New York-based NAACP legal team, confronted not only white segregationists committed to the status quo, but also Texas blacks, who were split on the issue. Though Sweatt's victory is ultimately bittersweet (finally admitted to the law school, he later dropped out) Lavergne makes a powerful argument for the role Sweatt v. Painter played in ending segregation. Photos.