1938 December 12

Supreme Court: Missouri Must Provide Law School Opportunity for African-Americans


In the case of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, decided on this day, the Supreme Court ruled that the State of Missouri was required to provide a law school education for its African-American residents. Lloyd Gaines had been denied admission to the University of Missouri law school on the grounds that it was “contrary to the constitution, laws and public policy of the State to admit a negro as a student in the University of Missouri.” State law did authorize payment of tuition at law schools in four adjacent states that did admit African-Americans: Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. The Supreme Court, however, rejected this approach as a viable option under the constitution.

The decision did not strike down the principle of “separate but equal,” but it was an important early (1938) step down the road to Brown v. Board of Education, on May 17, 1954, which did. As a result of the decision, Missouri moved to create a law school at the historically African-American Lincoln University, and Gaines was admitted.

Immediately after the decision, the case took a curious turn that has never been resolved. When the NAACP sought to appeal the adequacy of the Lincoln University program, it learned that Gaines had disappeared. His fate has never been determined, despite investigations by Ebony magazine in the 1950s and another by a weekly newspaper in 2000. His memory is honored at the University of Missouri, however. The campus African-American Center was named for him in 2001, and a portrait has been placed in the law school building.

The Court: “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.”

Learn more about Lloyd Gaineshttp://digital.library.umsystem.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?page=home;c=gnp

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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