Lloyd L. Gaines - Lawsuit


In 1936, he applied for admission to the law school at the University of Missouri, encouraged by Lorenzo Greene, a Lincoln University professor at the time and veteran civil rights activist. Accounts vary as to whether Gaines did this purely on his own initiative or was encouraged by the NAACP simply to have a plaintiff, without any real interest of his own in attending law school. When St. Louis lawyer Sidney Redmond, one of the three dozen African Americans then admitted to the Missouri bar, informed Charles Hamilton Houston, who was leading the NAACP's legal effort against the segregationist Jim Crow laws, that Gaines was willing to be a plaintiff, Houston at first asked him if he could find someone else. Houston later yielded when it was apparent Gaines was the only available plaintiff, but never explained what his initial objections might have been.

The law school's registrar, Sy Woodson Canada, had denied Gaines' admission on racial grounds although he was otherwise qualified for admission to the law school. The official policy of the State of Missouri was to pay the "out of state" expenses for education of African Americans who wished to study law until such time as demand was sufficient to build a separate law school within the State of Missouri for them. Gaines and his lawyers argued that lawyers educated out of state lost the benefit of courses that were specific to Missouri law, and the connections and firsthand experience of the state's courts an in-state legal education would offer.

Gaines and his lawyers were not hoping to overturn the "separate but equal" standard set out by the Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision allowing legal racial segregation, but rather to subtly undermine it by holding states that did segregate along racial lines to the "equal" part of the doctrine. They targeted graduate and professional public institutions of higher learning, which unlike most other segregated facilities were few in number and under centralized state control. Once segregationist states realized they had a choice between expensive duplication of such institutions for a small group of African Americans and integration of their existing facilities, they would choose the latter and voluntarily integrate. Houston also believed that since such schools served small portions of the population, attempts to integrate them would arouse less public opposition than efforts to integrate elementary and secondary schools would. Lastly, judges had themselves been educated in them and could better understand the impact of inequalities on students.

They were encouraged by a 1936 case, University of Maryland v. Murray, in which Houston and Thurgood Marshall had persuaded the Maryland Court of Appeals, that state's highest court, that the University of Maryland could not meet its constitutional burden of equal treatment by offering to reimburse him for tuition out of state instead of allowing him to attend the university, which as an African American he was barred by the university's administration from doing. In Missouri Gaines was likely as well to be offered reimbursement for his out-of-state tuition; however, the racial bar to attendance took the form of a state law instead of an administrative regulation. They hoped to get the Supreme Court to hear the case and establish a precedent.

Houston, Redmond and Gaines left St. Louis before dawn one summer day that year to drive to Columbia for the trial at Boone County courthouse. They arrived as the courthouse was beginning to open for the morning. Due to that summer's severe drought, many of the white farmers in the surrounding communities were there, waiting to make applications for relief. Some went into the courtroom to take in the unusual sight of African American lawyers arguing a case.

They were joined by a hundred current University of Missouri law students, reporters, and a few local African Americans. Two recent lynchings had discouraged most of the local black community from attending despite efforts to the contrary by the local NAACP chapters. They sat among the whites since none of the courtroom facilities were segregated. Even the lawyers for both sides shared a table, and shook hands before the case.

By the time trial was to begin, the heat outside had already exceeded 100 °F (38 °C). The crowds and poor ventilation made it even hotter in the courtroom, and Judge W.M. Dinwiddie suggested that he and the lawyers conduct proceedings with their jackets off. Houston claimed Gaines's exclusion from the law school solely on racial grounds violated his constitutional rights. For the state, William Hogsett conceded that Gaines was an excellent and qualified student with a right to a legal education, as long as it was somewhere other than the law school since it was public policy of the state, codified in the constitution and laws enacted by its legislature elected by the people, that African American students not be allowed to attend Missouri law school.

Gaines testified on his own behalf, and various state and university officials for their side. They claimed that admitting African Americans, the only applicants specifically barred regardless of other qualifications, would be "an unhappy thing" for both them and other students. William Masterson, dean of the University of Missouri School of Law, claimed not to know details of the admissions process or the school's budget on cross-examination.

Hogsett presented his case for the audience, some of whom nodded in sympathy with his arguments, while Houston concentrated on getting facts in the record for the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the only venue where he expected and wanted to prevail. He never seriously expected to win at trial, and indeed two weeks later Dinwiddie decided the case for the state. The judge did not write an opinion explaining his holding, and Gaines appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

The state's highest court heard the arguments near the end of the year. While normally it sat in two divisions, the case was considered so important that all seven justices were present. Two months later, it upheld Judge Dinwiddie. Justice William Francis Frank reiterated the court's earlier holdings for segregation, that it was to the advantage of blacks as well as whites. In Gaines' case, he held that the separate but equal standard was satisfied by the availability of an out-of-state legal education at state expense. "Equality is not identity of privileges," he wrote.

Houston and Redmond successfully petitioned to the United States Supreme Court for certiorari. Now known as Gaines v. Canada, the case was argued on November 9, 1938. Houston said the state's offer to pay for Gaines to attend law school out of state could not guarantee him a legal education equal to that offered white students.

A month later a 6-2 majority ordered the State of Missouri either to admit Gaines to the University of Missouri School of Law or to provide another school of equal stature within the state borders. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for the majority:

The basic consideration is not as to what sort of opportunities other States provide, or whether they are as good as those in Missouri, but as to what opportunities Missouri itself furnishes to white students and denies to negroes solely upon the ground of color. The admissibility of laws separating the races in the enjoyment of privileges afforded by the State rests wholly upon the equality of the privileges which the laws give to the separated groups within the State. The question here is not of a duty of the State to supply legal training, or of the quality of the training which it does supply, but of its duty when it provides such training to furnish it to the residents of the State upon the basis of an equality of right. By the operation of the laws of Missouri a privilege has been created for white law students which is denied to negroes by reason of their race. The white resident is afforded legal education within the State; the negro resident having the same qualifications is refused it there and must go outside the State to obtain it. That is a denial of the equality of legal right to the enjoyment of the privilege which the State has set up, and the provision for the payment of tuition fees in another State does not remove the discrimination.

The case articulated an important rule of law in the sequence of NAACP cases leading to the eventual desegregation order: that any academic program that a state provided to whites had to have an equivalent available to blacks. The Gaines holding helped lay the foundation for the landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered all public schools desegregated and overturned Plessy by holding that separate facilities were inherently unequal.

Since the Supreme Court had ordered the Missouri Supreme Court to rehear the case in light of its ruling, Gaines' legal battle was not over. Historian Gary Lavergne describes Gaines during this period as "high-maintenance". He sought out media attention, then complained about how stressful it was being the center of attention. Heman Marion Sweatt, later the plaintiff in another desegregation case heard by the Supreme Court, worked with Gaines at the University of Michigan, where the NAACP had paid for him to attend graduate school in the meantime, and reportedly found him "rather arrogant."

After working as a clerk for the Works Progress Administration in Michigan and completing a master's degree in economics, Gaines returned to Missouri in anticipation of the proceedings there, set to begin in August. The Missouri legislature hastily passed a bill appropriating $275,000 ($4.6 million in modern dollars) to convert an old beauty school in St. Louis into the new Lincoln University School of Law, in the hope that would satisfy the court. The NAACP planned to challenge the establishment of the new law school as still inadequate compared to the resources of the existing University of Missouri School of Law. Gaines, who would still need to pay his law school tuition as well as his daily living expenses, looked for work in the meantime. Between the continuing Depression and segregation, he had to settle for work at a gas station. He gave speeches to local NAACP chapters and church groups for donations, telling them "I am ready, willing and able to enroll in the law department at the University of Missouri in September, and I have the fullest intention of doing so," but still had to borrow money from his brother George for everyday expenses.

He quit the job at the gas station when he discovered the owner was purposely mislabeling low-grade fuel as high-grade, fearing he might be caught up in the legal consequences should the fraud be discovered. After taking a train across the state to Kansas City to give a speech to the local NAACP chapter and look, unsuccessfully, for work, he boarded another train for Chicago. There he reunited with the Page family, friends and neighbors from his youth in the Central West End, and stayed at a local YMCA.

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