A Civil Rights Hero Who Disappeared

New book tells story of a largely forgotten man who won a landmark Supreme Court decision.

April 6, 2016

Many remember James Meredith, the first black person to enroll at the University of Mississippi. But Lloyd Gaines is not a name widely known or taught, though he was the plaintiff in a suit that led to a 1938 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that Missouri had to provide, in the state, an opportunity for black students to go to law school. Until then, Missouri had a policy of paying for black students like Gaines to attend law school out of state, rather than at the all-white University of Missouri law school. But while the Supreme Court ruling was in some sense a victory for black students, it also was a defeat. The court said Missouri could keep the law school for whites only as long as it created a comparable one for black students. The state opted for this option (although the new law school was hardly comparable). Gaines might have challenged the fairness of the state's new version of separate but equal, but he disappeared, literally, and no one knows for sure what happened to him.

As a result, he is largely absent from the focus of historians studying desegregation. A new book, Lloyd Gaines and the Fight to End Segregation (University of Missouri Press), seeks to tell the story of Gaines and his Supreme Court case. The authors are James W. Endersby, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and William T. Horner, a teaching professor of political science at Mizzou.

Endersby responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: The Supreme Court decision in the case upheld separate but equal (without really requiring equal). Is that why it has largely been ignored?

A: The Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education had such a huge effect on educational equality that we often neglect the historical significance of the earlier cases. We correctly remember Brown as a landmark decision, but Gaines was the first in a series of Supreme Court decisions, mostly involving segregation in higher education, that led to Brown. The court's decision in Gaines demanded that educational facilities, if separate, must be equal. Subsequent court decisions expanded this need for and definition of equality. The court's decision in Brown ultimately decided that educational facilities, if separate, are inherently unequal.

Q: What do you see as the real significance of the Gaines decision?

A: The Supreme Court in Gaines made the first application of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause to emphasize equality of education. Moreover, equal protection was a constitutional protection guaranteed to the individual by the (state) government. The University of Missouri law school was open only to white students. Black students, according to Missouri's position, could attend law school at various institutions in adjacent states. In Gaines, the Supreme Court declared that if Missouri provided legal education to white students, it also had to provide an equivalent legal education to black students within the state. Once the Supreme Court applied the constitutional standard that a state must guarantee equality to all individuals, the end of racial segregation was near. The decision cracked the judicial doctrine of separate but equal and racial segregation that would crumble in subsequent court decisions.

Q: Had Lloyd Gaines lived, do you think there would have been a successful challenge to whether the program at Lincoln University (created by the state to comply with the Supreme Court decision) was truly comparable to that of the University of Missouri?

A: First let me point out that we don't know what happened to Gaines! Had Gaines pursued his case, it is quite possible that the Supreme Court under Charles Evan Hughes may have moved more quickly on issues of educational equality. Certainly, Charles Houston and the attorneys for the NAACP thought that the challenge would be successful in federal court. The majority on the Hughes court seemed adamant that educational opportunities provided by the state for blacks and whites should be equal. Moreover, the strongest defenders of racial segregation would soon leave the court. If Houston and the NAACP could get a second hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court, it is difficult to imagine anything other than that the small and poorly funded black-only Lincoln law school provided equal educational opportunities compared to the white-only Missouri law school. It may be important that to recall that the decision in Brown involved two decisions, the first to demand educational equality and the second to enforce it.

Q: What do you think happened to Gaines?

A: When people today first learn of Gaines’s disappearance, they often assume first that he was a victim of racial violence. That certainly is a real possibility. Those within the NAACP and the black press, however, assumed that Lloyd Gaines grew weary of the litigation and just walked away. The anecdotal evidence supports the view of the NAACP. But it is also puzzling how Gaines, a person of such prominence within the black community, never resurfaced in later years. If there was no foul play, we assume Gaines would renew contact with family and friends ultimately. So we are left with a conundrum. There has been no criminal investigation of his disappearance because there is no evidence of a crime. Unless someone comes forward with new and solid information, Gaines’s disappearance is likely to remain an unsolved mystery.

Q: Race remains an issue at the University of Missouri and elsewhere in higher education. What are the lessons of the Gaines story for today?

A: One lesson is that equality of opportunity in education remains an important goal, but an elusive one. Most of us today agree on the importance of equal educational opportunities for individuals from all groups, but we also hold competing values on a host of other issues. Educational equality may still conflict with other political and social norms. Charles Houston taught us that we must have goals to achieve over the long term, but we must often seek short-term success. Houston, Redmond, Marshall and the others intended to eliminate segregation and ensure racial equality. But they also understood that equality in education and other venues involved a series of steps in the right direction.

The Supreme Court would not overturn the separate-but-equal doctrine fully and immediately. But constant pressure from a series of judicial decisions would lead to that ultimately. Another lesson from the experience of Gaines and his attorneys is that willingness to pursue freedom and equality involves a tremendous personal cost. To stand up for rights and freedoms involves a significant emotional toll. Few are willing to make the sacrifice for the greater good.


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