Rev. William Alexander Lawson is the founding Pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, where it has grown to become one of Houston's leading Baptist churches.
A giant in the struggle for civil rights in Texas and the nation, Reverend Lawson marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and headed the Houston chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for over three decades. He was central in the push for desegregation in Houston-area schools, helped form the Coalition for the Homeless, and worked tirelessly on issues of poverty in Houston.
Rev. Lawson has also served as Director of the Baptist Student Union and Professor of Bible Studies at Texas Southern University, and helped to form the first Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Houston, where he taught classes in Sociology and the Black Church.
Today, Reverend Lawson is the Pastor Emeritus of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and is active in the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity.
Source: William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity.
Reverend William Lawson, Pastor Emeritus
BEFORE BROWN is a study of the background of the landmark desegregation case of Sweatt v Painter and is an excellent historical profile of the social, legal, and political landscape of the mid-twentieth century struggles against centuries-old racial traditions. It singles out a frail and mild-mannered postal employee, Heman Sweatt, Houston-born and reared. Heman finished Wiley College, a Methodist school in East Texas, and aspired to obtain a law degree. It was that aspiration that led to the events chronicled in Mr. Lavergne's book, and his interpretation of those events. Sweatt could have gotten an excellent law degree in any major law school in the North. But the state NAACP had been battling the racial segregation of Texas colleges and universities for decades; and now they had a poster child for that fight. So Sweatt, the quintessential model of an "acceptable Negro," became the perfect plaintiff to follow the organization's successful suit to allow African Americans to vote in the Democratic Primaries throughout the South, Smith v Allwright won in 1944 with Houston dentist Dr. Lonnie Smith.
The twenty-one chapters move swiftly, and although Mr. Lavergne is an administrator in a university, the book is not stiffly professorial. It skims along novel-like, and between its prologue and epilogue, is lively and colorful. Its narrative of events and its portraits of characters, central and peripheral could very well be scripted for a television series.
I found fascinating the accuracy of Mr. Lavergne's descriptions of persons and places he obviously could not have known. The work is not a simple white versus black diatribe, but points out both the prejudice of Southern Anglos and the infighting of African Americans, slowing their own progress toward the realization of goals. He knew as though he had been there the geography of Houston's Third Ward, the professional and political leadership of Houston and central and southeast Texas, the peculiar customs and traditions of the African American community of the forties and fifties. His chronicling of the battle between the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall and Houston Informer and Texas Freeman editor Carter Wesley is a classic. The creation of the Texas State College for Negroes (now Texas Southern University), with a Law School before it had a Department of Mathematics, Lavergne accurately described as an effort by Good Ole Boys to keep Sweat out of the University of Texas. But the school was staunchly defended by Wesley and other blacks, who believed that the State of Texas could be pressured into making equal an institution that was separate.
He also makes Heman Sweatt, while the central player in the drama, not a lone hero, but part of a larger setting involving the machinations of the NAACP, local civic, religious, and political leadership, what in the old movie days we used to call "a cast of thousands." So in this work Sweatt is to Sweatt v Painter what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was to the Civil Rights Movement of the decades following World War II.
This book delves into the roots of the movement that led to the Sweatt case, all the way back to the earliest struggles against slavery in the 17th Century. It traces that stream of events through Emancipation, late 19th Century and 20th Century Jim Crow, the developments of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, which "packed" the Supreme Court during the thirties and forties with liberal Democrats (eleven out of the twelve justices), and to the arguments of Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie with Dr. Lonnie Smith to gain the first major victory for African American rights since the crushing loss for blacks in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. So rather than assume that the Sweatt case was a simple impulse of a few idealistic African Americans in the post-war years, the book makes plain this complex network of events and influences in which Heman Sweatt was a necessary but not solitary figure.
Part of the novel-like color and flair of the book is in eloquent passages like the description of the Houston climate at the opening of chapter nineteen. His description of the soft-spoken but stubbornly determined Heman is daVincian. He sprinkles the book with names never known in the drama of the suit and the arguments before the Supreme Court--Melvin Tolson, W.R. Banks, Lulu White, Dr. Lawrence Nixon, Richard Grovey, Reverend Albert Lucas, A. Maceo Smith, Cliff Richardson, and an almost endless chain of others who would not be remembered but for Lavergne's exhaustive research.
I strongly recommend this book, not just as a history of the Sweatt case, but as a fascinating look into the efforts of the African American community nation-wide to open doors for civil rights for women, other ethnic minorities, and gays. Much that our nation is today--far from ideal--owes its development to the mild-mannered, frail little postman, Heman Sweatt. He was not simply a fortuitous character for the NAACP struggles; his emergence was pure Providence (forgive the preacher touch).