What is the cost of changing the world? For those who dare, it can everything in their life, for good or ill. Heman Sweatt put everything on the line for his bid to desegregate the University of Texas law school, an effort that changed civil rights laws forever.
Heman Marion Sweatt was born in Houston in December 1912. He was the fourth of seven children, and his parents were active and respected members of the community. His father, who had moved to Houston from Waxahachie in 1900 to work as a railroad mail clerk, encouraged his children to pursue an education. Ultimately, the six surviving children would all graduate from college. From an early age, Sweatt was idealistic and passionate about the cause of civil rights. He began attending meetings of the civil rights organization NAACP while still a youth. He attended segregated schools in Houston, as was the law at the time, and graduated high school in 1930.
He enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall and graduated with a bachelors degree in 1934. In 1936, he began teaching at a segregated school in Cleburne and even served as principal for a time. In 1937, he enrolled at the University of Michigan to study medicine. However, after a year, he returned to Houston where he worked for the post office. He married in 1940.
After becoming secretary of the National Alliance of Postal Employees, a labor union, Sweatt became increasingly interested in law as he fought the built-in prohibitions against promoting black employees. He was increasingly involved in voter registration drives and writing in newspapers owned by other African-Americans. Attorneys and other civil rights activists suggested that Sweatt apply to the law school at the University of Texas.
Sweatt easily met all the requirements for the law school. However, UT President Theophilus Painter consulted with Attorney General Grover Sellers about Sweatt’s admission. Sellers ordered that Sweatt be rejected because of his race. Sweatt and his attorneys sued in May 1946, arguing that the state was not protecting his equal rights under law as there were no law schools for African-Americans in Texas at the time. Courts ordered a new segregated law school be opened for African-Americans (at what ultimately became Texas Southern University), but Sweatt refused.
The new law school had none of the advantages of UT and was not even accredited. Sweatt and his attorneys argued that the law school experience was more than just a building. The experience, prestige, and level of education from some of the most prominent legal minds in Texas could not be replicated. The access to alumni and the reputation of UT all but guaranteed a successful career for a Texas lawyer. The only way he could receive an equal education was to enroll in the white law school.
In the months after his first attempt to register and the endless court hearings, Sweatt was the victim of death threats and harassment daily. Phone calls, letters, and strangers on the street poured on him like a tidal wave. The pressures grew, and the stress began taking a toll on his health and his marriage. Despite the dangers and the personal cost, Sweatt realized that too much was at stake – not just for him but for all that followed him. The fight dragged on for years.
In 1950, the Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt vs. Painter that he had the right to enroll at the UT law school. He began classes in 1950. But the pressures had been too much. His health was poor, and he missed several weeks for an operation. And he and his wife divorced.
He dropped out of the law school in 1952. His personal sacrifices permanently opened the law for other minority law students. His case in part helped set the legal precedent used to overturn segregation in all public schools in the Brown vs. Board of Education case two years later.
But leaving law school and the divorce was not the end of the journey for Sweatt. Life often shows that when times seem the bleakest, a new chapter is about to begin. And so it was for Sweatt.
He moved forward, now going to Georgia where he enrolled in the Atlanta University Graduate School for Social Work, earning a masters degree by 1954. He began working for the Urban League, organizing voter registration drives and also with poverty and employment programs. Sweatt also became a professor, teaching classes at Atlanta University while working with the Urban League. Sweatt remarried in 1963, a happy union that produced two daughters. He retired from the Urban League in 1977. He died at his home in Atlanta in 1982 at age 69.
In the years after his death, scholars and jurists began to appreciate the importance of Sweatt’s stand. Today, African Americans and members of all races can enter the law school without harassment and enjoy careers in law. In 1987, the University of Texas began the Heman Sweatt Symposium in Civil Rights, an annual conference specializing in civil rights issues held in his honor. In 2005, Travis County renamed the courts building where his initial hearings took place after Sweatt. A scholarship for UT law students was also established in his memory.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.