In 1954, UL (then Southwestern Louisiana Institute) paved the way for college desegregation in the South and across the nation, led by four African-American students and their families who sued for equal access to higher education.

More than a decade before desegregation ripped through southern colleges, UL became the first school in the nation to desegregate following the Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Education decision, as well as the first historically white school in the South to desegregate in any meaningful way.  UL's desegregation was carried out peacefully, intentionally avoiding the public eye.  As a result, UL's critical rôle in desegregation is largely unknown. UL alumnus Michael Wade, a professor at Appalachian State, has deeply researched the topic, summarized here. This is Part IV in the series. To read from Part I, click here.

A pretrial conference was held on January 28 to hear the motions and begin negotiations on the stipulations. At Tate's insistence, a defense stipulation that segregation per se was not an issue in the case and that the only issue was "equality of facilities, advantages and opportunities" was deleted, and the parties reached agreement on the facts in time for trial. By agreement of all parties, Judge Hunter set the new trial date for February 19. At trial, the court denied a defense motion to dismiss the case. On April 23, the court granted the plaintiffs' petition for relief.

Judge Hunter authored the decision. Louisiana's six white state colleges had been geographically located to serve their white clienteles, he wrote, "the purpose obviously being to make education available to more people and to make it possible for more people to stay at home and go to college at less expense." The same opportunity had not been provided to Lafayette Parish's black students, who had no college to which they could commute daily. The resultant burden and the loss of time and money imposed on black students and their parents were thus real and substantial. Hunter said the state could not constitutionally make available to prospective white students the kind of access that SLI provided and deny black residents a similar opportunity.

Well aware that the Supreme Court would soon rule on five cases challenging the constitutionality of Plessy, Hunter ruled that the question of the constitutionality of the Louisiana statute was irrelevant:

The entire theory of the Fourteenth Amendment is that where an officer or other representative of a State, in the exercise of authority with which he is clothed, so uses the power possessed to deny a right given by the Fourteenth Amendment, inquiry concerning whether the State has authorized the wrong is irrelevant. The federal judicial power is competent to afford redress for the wrong by dealing with the officer and the result of his exertion of power.

The court thus granted the plaintiffs' petition for relief because Louisiana law—as interpreted and administered by state officials—violated guarantees provided by the U.S. Constitution. The terms of the decree were settled after official notice to all parties.

The state accepted the trial court's decision. Neither the State Board of Education nor other state officials ever publicly explained the decision not to appeal the Constantine ruling, but several factors appear to have deterred further action. In light of the Sweatt decision, meeting the standard of equality in a new, separate regional college for black undergraduates was quite unlikely. Moreover, separate campuses probably would have to be built in the vicinity of each of the state colleges for whites, draining resources from an already underfunded state college system. In addition, state officials feared that the Brown decision, issued the following month, might be interpreted to apply to colleges as well as to the elementary and secondary public school systems—as indeed it later was. For his part, SLI president Joel Lafayette Fletcher always credited the story told him in Ruston by supporters of then-governor Robert Kennon: "It's not because of you, Joel, that Southwestern was integrated. The Governor just had to make some move in that direction on account of President Eisenhower—and he knew the d_ _m [sic] Cajuns wouldn't mind."

On July 16, 1954, the court permanently enjoined President Fletcher and his registrar, James Stewart Bonnet, from refusing to admit the plaintiffs, "or any other Negro citizen of the state, residing in Southwest Louisiana, and similarly qualified and situated," on the basis of race or color. This narrowly drawn language, intended to restrict applications from black students outside the college's service region, may have come from the defense, which logically could have argued that since the plaintiffs had made the case for regional racial discrimination, the remedy should be restricted to the geographic area in question. Certainly the attorney general's office intended to interpret the ruling literally. Assistant Attorney General W. C. Perrault defined for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Shelby M. Jackson the thirteen parishes his office considered "Southwest Louisiana." He said that "this office will advise President Fletcher not to admit Negroes to Southwestern except from the 13 parishes named herein." There is no evidence that this particular issue was a matter of subsequent controversy, no doubt because the Brown decisions enormously broadened the scope of the school desegregation issue.

Next Part V:  Lafayette—Vive la Différence

Excerpt from "Four Who Would: The Desegregation of Louisiana's State Colleges / Constantine v. Southwestern Louisiana Institute (1954) and the Desegregation of Louisiana's State Colleges" by Michael G. Wade, in Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses, Peter Wallenstein, Editor, University Press of Florida (2008), pp 60-91.

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