Supreme Court Cases: American Civil Rights Movement

Heman Sweatt was a 33 year old African-American from Houston, Texas, who wanted to be a lawyer. He applied for and was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School because he was an African-American. He sought and received assistance of the NAACP and its chief legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall (a future Supreme Court justice). At this time, the Supreme Court’s decision in 1896 in Plessy v Ferguson allowing states to segregate by race as long as the separate facilities were equal was still the law of the land. The problem in Texas was that the state had no law school for African-Americans. In 1947, the Texas legislature authorized the University of Texas to establish a law school for African-Americans in four rooms at a building in Austin. Sweatt declined to accept the offer, arguing that while this law school for African-Americans was certainly separate, it was not equal to the University of Texas Law School. After losing his argument in Texas courts, Sweatt appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the state of Texas and in favor of Heman Sweatt and declared that “the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that petitioner be admitted to the University of Texas Law School.” The Court found that in terms of volumes in the library, reputation of faculty, offering of courses, and available scholarships, the University of Texas Law School was far superior. Even in terms of intangibles like the ability to interact with his colleagues in the legal profession and the reputation of the University, the new law school for African-Americans was lacking. The Court thus held that Texas had not met the “equal” part of the “separate but equal” requirement.

A Kansas law permitted cities with more than 15,000 population to maintain separate public schools for African-American and white students. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, maintained segregated elementary schools. Linda Brown, an African-American third grader, and her family lived a few blocks from an all-white school in Topeka but was required to travel twenty-one blocks from her home to attend a school reserved for African-American children only. The NAACP chose this case to be a “test case” for several reasons. First, the case came from a northern state, not a southern state. Second, for all practical purposes Linda Brown’s school was equal to the white schools in Topeka. Linda Brown’s parents joined with parents of other African-American children and brought suit against the Topeka Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, chief legal counsel for the NAACP and a future Supreme Court justice, represented the African-American parents. At the same time, class action suits were filed in three other states – South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware – where African-American children were also compelled by state law to attend racially segregated public schools. The Kansas case and the cases from the other three states were consolidated and appealed to the Supreme Court where they were argued and decided together. Marshall argued that the African-American and white schools were not equal in a number of ways, but more than that, he argued that segregated schools were harmful to African-American children.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the African-American parents and their children. In doing so, the Court overruled the Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson and its “separate but equal” rule. Speaking through Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court declared: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

On the same day the Court handed down its decision in Brown, the Court also ended racial segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia in Bolling v Sharpe.

In 1955, the Supreme Court heard reargument in Brown v Board of Education II. The Court was again unanimous, and this time, directed the public schools involved to admit “with all deliberate speed” students on a racially nondiscriminatory basis.

Pete Hernandez, a 21 year-old Mexican American, was drinking at a bar in Edna, Texas, when he became disruptive and was removed from the bar. He left, obtained a gun, returned, and shot another man in the presence of a number of eyewitnesses. He was indicted for murder by an all-white grand jury. His lawyers sought to quash the indictment and the empaneling of an all-white trial jury because persons of Mexican American descent were excluded from both panels. In the previous 25 years, in fact, no person of Mexican American descent had been selected to serve on a grand or trial jury or as a jury commissioner in Jackson County. The trial judge denied the motions, and Hernandez was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that because Mexican American citizens were classified as “white” under Texas law, no discrimination was found, and thus that court affirmed Hernandez’ conviction. The Supreme Court agreed to review that decision.

Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court which agreed with the arguments made by Hernandez’ attorneys and thus overturned his conviction. Warren wrote: “In numerous decisions, this Court has held that it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws of the Fourteenth Amendment to try a defendant of a particular race or color under an indictment issued by a grand jury, or before a petit jury, from which all persons of his race or color have, solely because of that race or color, been excluded by the state, whether acting through its legislature, its courts, or its executive or administrative officers. … Petitioner’s only claim is the right to be indicted and tried by juries from which all members of his class are not systematically excluded – juries selected from among all qualified persons regardless of national origin or descent. To this much, he is entitled by the Constitution.”