Book Details Legal Struggles of Lloyd Gaines

Bill Horner and James Endersby
Lloyd Gaines and the Fight to End Segregation
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Political Science

Most people who have attended the University of Missouri are familiar with the Gaines Oldham Black Culture Center or have heard of Lloyd Gaines, the first African-American to apply to the MU law school, which denied his application. Until now, however, few have been aware of the legal battles Gaines and the NAACP waged to guarantee equal rights decades before the civil rights movement gained steam.

MU political science professors Bill Horner and James Endersby have just released the first book that focuses entirely on the Gaines case (Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada) and the vital role played by the NAACP and its lawyers. Lloyd Gaines and the Fight to End Segregation, published by the University of Missouri Press, positions the Gaines case as the first in a long line of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding race, higher education, and equal opportunity.

In 1936, Gaines applied to the University of Missouri School of Law and was denied admission. Gaines and the NAACP challenged the university’s decision, and the Supreme Court handed down its decision in 1938.

“The Supreme Court said Missouri could not continue offering tuition assistance to black students if they left the state to study when a comparable program was not available at Lincoln University in Jefferson City,” Horner says. “The press at the time said the court decision meant the desegregation of MU, but it did not mean that because the state responded by creating a separate law school for black students through Lincoln University, but located in St. Louis.”

Endersby says the second phase of the legal battle was to challenge the state of Missouri’s response (the creation of a separate law school) as an acceptable solution to the Supreme Court’s decision. He says NAACP attorney Charles Houston, who became known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” had hoped to take the second challenge to the Supreme Court to establish a nationwide precedent.

“Houston wanted the court to say we are going to enforce our ruling and require the University of Missouri to admit Lloyd Gaines and other African-Americans to law school and professional schools and graduate schools, but the attempt stopped when Gaines disappeared because they no longer had a client,” Endersby says.

Gaines went out allegedly to buy some stamps on a rainy night in Chicago in 1939 and that was the last time anyone saw him.

“There are some people who say they received some contact from him—usually by mail—but we can’t confirm any of this,” Endersby says. “The NAACP believed Gaines just walked away because he was tired of the case and tired of the publicity with nothing gained for him personally. The first assumption is that something bad happened to him, but we do not know.”

Endersby says Gaines did have a history of disappearing for months at a time because he tired of the spotlight.

“Regardless of whether he left of not, what Gaines did at the time is an important thing that not everyone could do,” Horner says. “It’s not a badge of shame if he finally couldn’t take it anymore—the pressure and the threats and the constant scrutiny. “ Horner says one of the things that lends credence to the idea Gaines just walked away from it all was a lengthy letter he wrote to his mother, which includes a line saying “don’t worry if you don’t hear from me.” Horner says that line suggests Gaines might have left voluntarily.

Endersby says their book also looks at the role black attorneys at the state and local level played in this case and other similar cases. He says attorneys Sidney Redmond and Henry Espy helped Gaines in the initial stages of his case, doing all of the background research and tutoring Houston and his colleague Thurgood Marshall on state laws.

Endersby says after Gaines vanished, a series of cases followed in Oklahoma and Texas that chipped away at segregation. He says each of those cases in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s made it a little more difficult for a state to have a segregated school, culminating with the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

Lloyd Gaines and the Fight to End Segregation is the inaugural volume in the series Studies in Constitutional Democracy, sponsored by the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy.

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