Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice

Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice

Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice

Before Brown: Heman Marion Sweatt, Thurgood Marshall, and the Long Road to Justice


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 Sweattcase paved the way for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topekarulings 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 Educationcase in 1954 and ultimately led to his becoming the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.


When I reported for football practice as a freshman on the campus of Church Point High School in Louisiana in the fall of 1969, the news on the insufferably hot and humid field was not about whether we were going to have a winning season but about how many “colored” students were going to report for school in a couple of weeks. Church Point High had enrolled a few African Americans as students the previous year, but my freshman class in 1969–1970 was going to be the first fully integrated one in the school’s history—and one of the first in all of Louisiana. Under a court order at the time, Church Point High School would first have an integrated freshman class, then a fully integrated high school the next year.

I remember that two African American freshmen, Walter Lewis, Jr., and “Big John” Bellard, reported to football practice that day two weeks before the opening of school. They were fourteen or fifteen years old, and they must have felt terribly alone. Two years before, three girls in my class, Desiree Guidry, Priscilla Meche, and Roslyn Duplechin, first broke the color barrier when they attended Church Point Elementary School as part of a “pre-integration” program to determine how the whites of Church Point would react to racial integration. Today, Duplechin believes that the program added to the smooth transition of the integration of Church Point schools, and I know her to be right. Until I wrote this book, I never thought of Walter, Big John, Desiree, Priscilla, and Roslyn as courageous. I see now that none of the rest of us, in my four years at Church Point High, ever had to summon the courage they had to walk through those doors.

Among the advantages enjoyed by white students at Church Point, our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters had gone there before us. We knew the principal and almost all of the teachers, aides, cafeteria workers, and janitors. The high school was in our neighborhood.

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