Heman Marion Sweatt and Abigail Noel Fisher both wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin, and both claimed race was a primary reason for their rejection.
They filed civil rights lawsuits and the Supreme Court ultimately agreed to hear their appeals, filed more than a half-century apart.
Questions over academic competition, fairness, and demographics as well as the role of government in promoting political and social diversity populated their claims.
But it is the key difference between the plaintiffs that now confronts the court: Sweatt was African-American, Fisher is white.
The justices are poised to rule this month in Fisher's appeal, possibly in coming days, on the use of race in college admissions.
Sweatt's 1950 case produced a landmark court ruling that set the stage for the eventual end of racial segregation in public facilities.
The question around Fisher could come down to whether a majority believes affirmative action has run its course, no longer necessary in a country that has come far to confront its racially divisive past.
"There's a good chance that affirmative action, at least in the case of education, is on the chopping block," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington appellate attorney and SCOTUSblog.com editor.
"The Supreme Court 10 years ago approved the use of race as a factor. But it's just changed. [Now retired Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor isn't there and she was the decisive vote. And the current conservative majority is just very suspicious of the use of race in government decision-making," Goldstein said.
Specifically in Fisher, do race-conscious admission policies at the University of Texas, the flagship state college, violate the rights of white applicants?
Other, similar cases on docket
The timing of the decision is not lost on the justices. The court is also set to rule by month's end on two other contentious appeals over classification -- voting rights enforcement, and same-sex marriage.
Fisher sued the state university after her college application was rejected in 2008 when she was a high school senior in Sugar Land, Texas, outside Houston.
She claims the individualized, discretionary admission policies violate her rights, and favor African-American and Hispanic applicants over whites and Asian-Americans.
The state of Texas provides for a hybrid admission policy: Automatic acceptance to its university's main campus in Austin for in-state students finishing in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
Three quarters of the in-state student body gets in this way, which ensures a measure of non-subjective diversity.
Fisher just missed that opportunity, so she had to compete in a separate pool of students seeking to attend the highly competitive school.
It is that a selection process that is before the court.
"If any state action should respect racial equality, it is university admissions," she and her lawyers told the high court in their written brief. "Selecting those who will benefit from the limited places available at universities has enormous consequences."
The school, with a large 52,000 student body, defends the educational benefits of its
"holistic" policy of considering race as one of many factors -- including test scores, community service, leadership and work experience -- designed to create a diverse campus.
"We must have the flexibility to consider each applicant's unique experiences and background so we can provide the best environment in which to educate and train the students who will be our nation's future leaders," said school administrators.
Obama administration backs school
The Obama administration agrees, and is backing the school, saying to grow a nation built on differing complexions and backgrounds will depend on future leaders "who possess the understanding of diversity that is necessary to govern and defend the United States."
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is among more than five dozen outside groups that filed legal briefs in support of the school.