Defining "Equal" in Higher Education eText - Primary Source

Primary Source

G. W. McLaurin, a 54-year old African American, sits outside a classroom, apart from the white students, as he attends class at the University of Oklahoma in 1948. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. G. W. McLaurin, a 54-year old African American, sits outside a classroom, apart from the white students, as he attends class at the University of Oklahoma in 1948. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
Postal worker and law student Heman Sweatt's application to the all-white University of Texas Law School eventually led to the integration of that school. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Postal worker and law student Heman Sweatt's application to the all-white University of Texas Law School eventually led to the integration of that school. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Sweatt v. Painter

Supreme Court decision

By: Fred M. Vinson

Date: 1950

Source: Sweatt v. Painter. 339 U.S. 629, 70 Sup. Ct. 848 (1950). Reproduced in Knight, Edgar W., and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951, 698–700.

McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents

Supreme Court decision

By: Fred M. Vinson

Date: 1950

Source: McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents. 339 U.S. 637, 70 Sup. Ct. 851 (1950). Reproduced in Knight, Edgar W., and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1951, 698–700.

About the Author: Fred M. Vinson (1890–1953) received undergraduate and law degrees from Center College and began a law practice in Kentucky. In 1924, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served six terms. In 1945, Vinson was appointed as secretary of the treasury. In 1946, he was nominated by President Harry S. Truman (served 1945–1953) for chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a position he held until his death in 1953.


The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed the rights of individuals, regardless of race, to "equal protection of the laws." Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to pass Jim Crow laws, thereby legalizing segregation. In 1896, legal segregation in the South was greatly strengthened by the Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that a Louisiana law requiring segregated train cars was constitutional as long as equal accommodations were furnished.

By the 1940s, things were beginning to change. In 1945, Heman Marion Sweatt, an African American college graduate and mail carrier in Houston, applied to the University of Texas Law School, which accepted only white students. In 1946, Sweatt attempted to register and was denied admission on the basis of race. A Texas court ordered the state to provide a law school for African Americans. When the school was opened, Sweatt refused to register for that school, citing that the new school was inferior to University of Texas Law School. In 1950, the case reached the Supreme Court and, in Sweatt v. Painter, the Court ordered the University of Texas Law School to

admit African Americans because the black school was clearly not equal both in terms of measurable aspects, such as the variety of courses, and in intangibles, such as reputation and prestige.

On the same day as the Court's decision in Sweatt, the Court also ruled on McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents that the University of Oklahoma could not treat African American and white students differently. G. W. McLaurin, an African American student attending a doctoral program at the University of Oklahoma, was forced to sit in special areas that were reserved for "Colored people" in the library, classrooms, and the cafeteria. The Court held that without the opportunity to associate freely with his classmates, McLaurin was deprived of a substantial educational advantage afforded white students.


In both Sweatt and McLaurin, the Court further defined the term "substantially equal." Considering factors beyond the quality of buildings and the number of volumes in the library, the decisions resulted in a weakening of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Although in neither case did the Court directly consider or overturn Plessy, the decisions called into question the very possibility that schools could be both racially separate and equal. In Sweatt, the Court noted that students attending the black law school would be unable to build relationships with most of the judges and lawyers with whom they would later work, and in McLaurin, the importance of the "exchange of views" with other students was acknowledged. Affording these types of opportunities to African American students was now a condition of providing "substantially equal" education, yet impossible to accomplish under segregation.

The rulings in these two cases had an important impact on the decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) when the Court overturned Plessy. The Court cited both Sweatt and McLaurin in the Brown ruling, noting that the decisions resting on the finding of inequality in terms of "intangible" aspects of education were directly applicable to the provision of public K–12 education. Sweatt and McLaurin were landmark cases that contributed to the eventual rejection of "separate but equal" education as a violation of the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Primary Source: Sweatt v. Painter [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In the following excerpt, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson states that an African American student must be admitted to the University of Texas Law School since the black law school provided is unequal in both tangible and intangible factors.

Mr. Chief Justice Vinson delivered the opinion of the Court.…

In the instant case, petitioner filed an application for admission to the University of Texas Law School for the February, 1946 term. His application was rejected solely because he is a Negro. Petitioner thereupon brought this suit for mandamus against the appropriate school officials, respondents here, to compel his admission. At that time, there was no law school in Texas which admitted Negroes.

The state trial court recognized that the action of the State in denying petitioner the opportunity to gain a legal education while granting it to others deprived him of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court did not grant the relief requested, however, but continued the case for six months to allow the State to supply substantially equal facilities. At the expiration of the six months, in December, 1946, the court denied the writ on the showing that the authorized university officials had adopted an order calling for the opening of a law school for Negroes the following

February. While petitioner's appeal was pending, such a school was made available, but petitioner refused to register therein. The Texas Court of Civil Appeals set aside the trial court's judgment and ordered the cause "remanded generally to the trial court for further proceedings without prejudice to the rights of any party to this suit." …

The University of Texas Law School, from which petitioner was excluded, was staffed by a faculty of sixteen full-time and three part-time professors, some of whom are nationally recognized authorities in their field. Its student body numbered 850. The library contained over 65,000 volumes. Among the other facilities available to the students were a law review, moot court facilities, scholarship funds, and Order of the Coif affiliation. The school's alumni occupy the most distinguished positions in the private practice of the law and in the public life of the State. It may properly be considered one of the nation's ranking law schools.

The law school for Negroes which was to have opened in February, 1947, would have had no independent faculty or library. The teaching was to be carried on by four members of the University of Texas Law School faculty, who were to maintain their offices at the University of Texas while teaching at both institutions. Few of the 10,000 volumes ordered for the library had arrived; nor was there any full-time librarian. The school lacked accreditation.

Since the trial of this case, respondents report the opening of a law school at the Texas State University for Negroes. It is apparently on the road to full accreditation. It has a faculty of five full-time professors; a student body of 23; a library of some 16,500 volumes serviced by a full-time staff; a practice court and legal aid association; and one alumnus who has become a member of the Texas Bar.

Whether the University of Texas Law School is compared with the original or the new law school for Negroes, we cannot find substantial equality in the educational opportunities offered white and Negro law students by the State. In terms of number of the faculty, variety of courses and opportunity for specialization, size of the student body, scope of the library, availability of law review and similar activities, the University of Texas Law School is superior. What is more important, the University of Texas Law School possesses to a far greater degree those qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness in a law school. Such qualities, to name but a few, include reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige. It is difficult to believe that one who had a free choice between these law schools would consider the question close.…

In accordance with these cases, petitioner may claim his full constitutional right: legal education equivalent to that offered by the State to students of other races. Such education is not available to him in a separate law school as offered by the State. We cannot, therefore, agree with respondents that the doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson … requires affirmance of the judgment below. Nor need we reach petitioner's contention that Plessy v. Fergusonshould be reexamined in the light of contemporary knowledge respecting the purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment and the effects of racial segregation.…

We hold that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that petitioner be admitted to the University of Texas Law School. The judgment is reversed and the cause is remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.


Primary Source: McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt, Vinson states the Court's decision that a black student may not be segregated within the University of Oklahoma.

Mr. Chief Justice Vinson delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, we are faced with the question whether a state may, after admitting a student to graduate instruction in its state university, afford him different treatment from other students solely because of his race.…

Appellant is a Negro citizen of Oklahoma. Possessing a Master's Degree, he applied for admission to the University of Oklahoma in order to pursue studies and courses leading to a Doctorate in Education. At that time, his application was denied, solely because of his race. The school authorities were required to exclude him by the Oklahoma statutes, … which made it a misdemeanor to maintain or operate, teach or attend a school at which both whites and Negroes are enrolled or taught. Appellant filed a complaint requesting injunctive relief, alleging that the action of the school authorities and the statutes upon which their action was based were unconstitutional and deprived him of the equal protection of the laws.…

A statutory three-judge District Court held that the State had a constitutional duty to provide him with the education he sought as soon as it provided that education for applicants of any other group. It further held that to the extent the Oklahoma statutes denied him admission they were unconstitutional and void. On the assumption, however, that the State would follow the constitutional mandate, the court refused to grant the injunction, retaining jurisdiction of the cause with full power to issue any necessary and proper orders to secure McLaurin the equal protection of the laws.

Following this decision, the Oklahoma legislature amended these statutes to permit the admission of Negroes to institutions of higher learning attended by white students, in cases where such institutions offered courses not available in the Negro schools. The amendment provided, however, that in such cases the program of instruction "shall be given at such colleges or institutions of higher education upon a segregated basis." Appellant was thereupon admitted to the University of Oklahoma Graduate School. In apparent conformity with the amendment, his admission was made subject to "such rules and regulations as to segregation as the President of the University shall consider to afford to Mr. G. W. McLaurin substantially equal educational opportunities as are afforded to other persons seeking the same education in the Graduate College," a condition which does not appear to have been withdrawn. Thus he was required to sit apart at a designated desk in an anteroom adjoining the classroom; to sit at a designated desk on the mezzanine floor of the library, but not to use the desks in the regular reading room; and to sit at a designated table and to eat at a different time from the other students in the school cafeteria.

To remove these conditions, appellant filed a motion to modify the order and judgment of the District Court. That court held that such treatment did not violate the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment and denied the motion.… This appeal followed.

In the interval between the decision of the court below and the hearing in this Court, the treatment afforded appellant was altered. For some time, the section of the classroom in which appellant sat was surrounded by a rail on which there was a sign stating, "Reserved For Colored," but these have been removed. He is now assigned to a seat in the classroom in a row specified for colored students; he is assigned to a table in the library on the main floor; and he is permitted to eat at the same time in the cafeteria as other students, although here again he is assigned to a special table.

It is said that the separations imposed by the State in this case are in form merely nominal. McLaurin uses the same classroom, library and cafeteria as students of other races; there is no indication that the seats to which he is assigned in these rooms have any disadvantage of location. He may wait in line in the cafeteria and there stand and talk with his fellow students, but while he eats he must remain apart.

These restrictions were obviously imposed in order to comply, as nearly as could be, with the statutory requirements of Oklahoma. But they signify that the State, in administering the facilities it affords for professional and graduate study, sets McLaurin apart from the other students. The result is that appellant is handicapped in his pursuit of effective graduate instruction. Such restrictions impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession.

Our society grows increasingly complex, and our need for trained leaders increases correspondingly. Appellant's case represents, perhaps, the epitome of that need, for he is attempting to obtain an advanced degree in education, to become, by definition, a leader and trainer of others. Those who will come under his guidance and influence must be directly affected by the education he receives. Their own education and development will necessarily suffer to the extent that his training is unequal to that of his classmates. State-imposed restrictions which produce such inequalities cannot be sustained.

It may be argued that appellant will be in no better position when these restrictions are removed, for he may still be set apart by his fellow students. This we think irrelevant. There is a vast difference—a Constitutional difference—between restrictions imposed by the state which prohibit the intellectual commingling of students, and the refusal of individuals to commingle where the state presents no such bar.… The removal of the state restrictions will not necessarily abate individual and group predilections, prejudices and choices. But at the very least, the state will not be depriving appellant of the opportunity to secure acceptance by his fellow students on his own merits.

We conclude that the conditions under which this appellant is required to receive his education deprive him of his personal and present right to the equal protection of the laws. See Sweatt v. Painter.… We hold that under these circumstances the Fourteenth Amendment precludes differences in treatment by the state based upon race. Appellant, having been admitted to a state-supported graduate school, must receive the same treatment at the hands of the state as students of other races. The judgment is


Further Resources


Alexander, Kern, and M. David Alexander. American Public School Law, 5th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.

Howard, John R. The Shifting Wind: The Supreme Court and Civil Rights from Reconstruction to "Brown." Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Spurlock, Clark. Education and the Supreme Court. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1955.

Tushnet, Mark V. The NAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925–1950. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.


"'Courage and the Refusal to Be Swayed': Heman Marion Sweatt's Legal Challenge that Integrated the University of Texas." TxTell UT Stories, University of Texas, Austin. Available online at; website home page: (accessed April 30, 2003).

" Sweatt v. Painter Archival and Textual Sources." University of Denver College of Law. Available online at; website home page: (accessed April 30, 2003).