Long before James Meredith became the first black man to enroll at the University of Mississippi, before a handful of black college students started a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a 33-year-old mail carrier walked into the registrar’s office at the University of Texas. His name was Heman Marion Sweatt, and he sought admission to the university’s law school. He might as well have chosen to walk into a hurricane.
For all the facts Lavergne unearthed, some things are unknowable, such as why Sweatt, an introverted mail carrier, agreed to help the NAACP in its crusade to invalidate the laws of segregation. Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer for the organization, needed a plaintiff to bring a case against UT’s law school, but finding one proved difficult. Then one night in the fall of 1945, Sweatt stepped forward at a Houston church. “Many wondered why he would volunteer for such a grueling civic service,” Lavergne writes in Before Brown. After all, Sweatt had a wife, a comfortable home, and a post-office job that paid him two or three times what black schoolteachers earned at the time. Sweatt would later call his decision “a brash moment.”
That decision took him around a corner of history, changing his life as much as it would change the university.
Amilcar Shabazz, a native Texan, has researched the history of desegregation at several of the state’s public universities. In Advancing Democracy (University of North Carolina Press), he quotes from a revealing letter written to Painter in 1950. The author was Luciel Decker, a UT student, who sought assurance that W. Astor Kirk—a black man who was to enroll temporarily in the university’s graduate government program—would not be allowed to take classes with white students, as the president had promised. Kirk’s very presence, Decker suggested, would spoil the idyllic campus. “From one who used to sit out in front of the Old Main Bldg & pet your beautiful collie,” she wrote, “please don’t change your mind this year anyway.”
Shabazz, a professor and chairman of the department of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, believes the sentiment expressed in Decker’s letter illuminates the significance of Sweatt’s story.
“The lesson to learn from Sweatt isn’t just a question of a victory of a race, but instead it’s a question of advancing the cause of democracy, in the most expansive reading of that,” Shabazz says. “We all benefit when these institutions are not only diverse racially and diverse economically, but diverse in the heart. It wasn’t just that Sweatt was black. The game changer was that he altered people’s perceptions of who had a right to be someplace.”
Those perceptions did not change overnight. Before Sweatt won his case, he and his wife received death threats. Vandals damaged their home. Stomach ulcers sent him to the hospital, and he suffered a heart attack.
By the time he enrolled at UT in September 1950, he was drained. That October, a wooden cross was set ablaze near the law building, yet Sweatt played down the incident in a letter written days later; students had been “very agreeable,” he wrote. In the 1970s, however, he recalled that “the hostility was terrifying.” Lavergne writes that the absence of violence would not have assuaged the fear Sweatt must have felt, and quotes Alfred Hitchcock: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
This fall, for the first time, a majority of the university’s freshmen were nonwhite students, yet Lavergne believes that the institution has yet to move past its unfortunate racial history. “There are stories told by grandparents in living rooms and dining rooms throughout the state about how the University of Texas wasn’t open to them,” he says. “No wonder some people don’t believe that we’re trying to diversify this campus.”
Each year rejected applicants and their parents walk into this office to plead their cases for admission. “I’ve seen people collapse with grief when their appeal wasn’t successful—collapsewith grief,” he says. “For some reason, they believe there’s nowhere else they can go. To me, that’s a tragedy.”
In 1946, Sweatt had no reasonable alternatives, no second-choice colleges. He was denied admission inside a building that symbolized the promise of an education—but only for some. Although one can only imagine what he thought when he walked out of the Main Building that day, what he would have seen on the edifice is certain. It’s an inscription from John 8: “Ye Shall Know the Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free.”