The Strange Story of Lloyd Gaines

Never heard of Lloyd Gaines?  I hadn’t either until about 2 hours ago when I read the story in today’s New York Times.  Buried on page 19, is the story of a Supreme Court decision I had never heard of and the mystery surrounding the plaintiff, Lloyd Gaines.

Mr. Gaines left his apartment in Chicago on the night of March 19, 1939, three months after the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri had to admit him to law school.

On Dec. 12, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that the segregated University of Missouri Law School had to admit Lloyd Lionel Gaines, who was qualified except for the color of his skin, if there was no comparable legal education available to him within Missouri — and there was not.

Despite his victory, Mr. Gaines was troubled. He had told relatives and friends he was having trouble finding steady work to earn money for school (apparently one reason he went to Chicago), and he was ambivalent about being in the spotlight.

“As for my publicity relative to the university case, I have found that my race still likes to applaud, shake hands, pat me on the back and say how great and noble is the idea,” he wrote his mother in St. Louis days before disappearing. “How historical and socially important the case but — and there it ends.” He added, “Sometimes I wish I were just a plain, ordinary man whose name no one recognized.”

For the 1930s, Missouri’s policy was enlightened: since there was no law school at Lincoln, the state paid the tuitions of blacks from Missouri who went to nearby states to study law. And the Missouri legislature had committed itself to establishing a law school at Lincoln someday, should there ever be enough demand.

But Mr. Gaines said he wanted to go to the University of Missouri’s law school, so in 1936 he sued in state court to gain admission. He lost, but lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P. saw his case as a way to attack the “separate but equal” doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson, which was used to justify public school segregation.

Mr. Gaines’s team was headed by Charles Hamilton Houston, chief litigator for the N.A.A.C.P., mentor to Thurgood Marshall and later dean of the Howard University Law School. The case reached the Supreme Court on Nov. 9, 1938. Houston argued that the state had blatantly failed to meet the “separate but equal” standard and that paying out-of-state tuition for black students from Missouri was not good enough. The court ruled 6 to 2 for Mr. Gaines. “The basic consideration here 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,” Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote.

Justices James C. McReynolds and Pierce Butler dissented, saying the State of Missouri ought to be able to set its own education policies. (There was one vacancy on the court.)

The ruling in Gaines v. Canada (S. W. Canada was the university registrar) would eventually open the doors of law schools for blacks in a dozen Southern and border states. And it was a steppingstone toward Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that repudiated the “separate but equal” notion in outlawing school segregation.

So what happened to Mr. Gaines?  Was he murdered?  If so, by a mugger out to rob him or by segregrationists who had stalked him?  Or did he simply decided he did not want to attend the University of Missouri law school, didn’t want to deal with the pressure and just disappear?

Lloyd Gaines’s nephew George Gaines, a retired Navy captain who lives in San Diego, said recently, “We have never had him declared dead.” But Captain Gaines said he doubted that his uncle would have chosen to drop out of life, or end his life, given the perseverance he displayed.

In the early 1950s, the University of Missouri began admitting black students. Lloyd Gaines is now revered at the university, which awarded him an honorary law degree in 2006. That year, the state bar awarded him a law license, posthumously.

If he had lived, would we be celebrating Gaines v. Canada as we do Brown v. Board of Education?    Would Brown have come sooner?  Would Gaines have been the James Meredith of University of Missouri?  On the eve of the start of Senate hearings on the nomination of the first Latino Justice, it is interesting to think about.