Seventy Years Too Late: Lloyd Gaines Gets His Law Degree

The courageous young black man Lloyd Gaines, who spearheaded the first major attack on state-commanded racially segregated higher education, will be awarded an honorary degree at the University of Missouri law school's commencement ceremony this spring. 

Lloyd Gaines was the valedictorian of his all-black high school. He then enrolled at Lincoln University, the historically black educational institution in Jefferson City, Missouri. He graduated with honors in 1936.

Gaines then applied for admission to the law school at the University of Missouri. Gaines’ application was denied because of his race. The state of Missouri offered to pay Gaines’ tuition at an out-of-state law school. He rejected that offer and with the help of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, he filed a lawsuit against the university.

His suit rested on solid ground. Although the state was then legally permitted to maintain an all-white law school, it could do so only if it also maintained a comparable school for blacks. This was the so-called separate but equal 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Gaines lost the initial battles in local and state courts. But eventually in December 1938 the Supreme Court of the United States ordered the state of Missouri to admit Gaines to the University of Missouri law school or to establish a law school for blacks in the state that was of equal academic quality.

While affirming the separate but equal doctrine of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, the decision was the first step in dismantling the system of unequal higher education in this country for Negroes.

Due to threats on his life as the case wound through the legal system, for his safety the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had relocated Gaines to Chicago. But on March 19, 1939, Gaines left his home in Chicago to go to the post office. He was never seen again and was presumed murdered. The case remains unsolved.

In addition to his being awarded an honorary degree at the law school's commencement ceremony this spring, the university has also renamed its Black Cultural Center in Gaines' honor and a scholarship program has been established in his name.