Contributions of Missouri’s Black lawyers to securing equal justice: Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada
Part 3 of 4
Editor's note: In 1989, St. Louis University School of Law Assistant Professor Leland republished this article, examining the history of black lawyers in Missouri during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the journal of The Missouri Bar. The author is now the Louis J Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy at the University of Delaware's School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. In recognition of February's celebration of Black History Month, we are pleased to reprint this article.
Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada
A St. Louis lawyer, Sidney Redmond, had an instrumental role in an important equalization case. Mr. Redmond was a 1923 graduate of Harvard College and he received a law degree from Harvard University in 1927. Redmond moved to St. Louis from Mississippi in 1929. In 1935 there were only forty-five Black attorneys in the state of Missouri, and thirty of those practiced in St. Louis. A total of three Black attorneys had been admitted to the Missouri bar in the previous five years, but there were fewer Black practitioners in the State in 1936 than there had been ten years earlier.18
In 1936, Houston's equalization strategy prevailed in a case against the University of Maryland, Pearson et al. v. Murray.19 In that case, the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the state was obligated, under the equal protection clause, to admit a Black student since it had established a state-supported law school for white students but had not done so for Black students. After the victory in Murray, the NAACP was anxious to pursue its litigation strategy in other states. When Redmond recommended that the NAACP file a civil action on behalf of a Black student in Missouri, Houston agreed.
Lloyd Gaines was a 1935 graduate of Lincoln University who wanted to become a lawyer. After his application to the University of Missouri was denied, he became the plaintiff in the Missouri case. Sidney R. Redmond and Henry D. Espy of St. Louis (who were both members of the Mound City Bar Association) and Charles Houston represented Gaines. Houston arrived in St. Louis to complete the final research for the case several days prior to the trial. On July 10, 1935, the day of the trial, Houston rose at 4:15 a.m. to prepare for the 120-mile drive to Columbia. By the time Gaines and the other lawyers had assembled, it was six o'clock. An unanticipated detour caused further delays. Houston, Redmond, Espy and Gaines did not arrive at the Boone County Courthouse until 9:15 a.m. 20
During that summer, Boone County had been suffering from a severe drought. As a result, dozens of farmers were in town to visit officials at the county relief agencies located in the county courthouse. Several of the farmers wandered into the courtroom to watch the Gaines proceedings. In addition, nearly a hundred students who were attending a summer session at the University of Missouri also crowded into the courtroom. Before long, the courtroom was filled to capacity. The opposing counsel shook hands cordially and they all shared a single table. An arrangement "odd to us," Houston reported later. In a memorandum to his office, Houston explained that "all during the trial we were looking down one another's throats. For private conferences at the table we almost had to go into a football huddle.”21 Although the courtroom was filled with spectators, there were no hostile demonstrations or outbursts during the trial. Furthermore, unlike many courthouses during that period, the Boone County courthouse did not provide racially segregated facilitates. Houston noted that during the recess, some of the farmers "looked a little strange at us drinking out of the same fountain and using the same lavatories with them, but they did not say anything."22
Houston reported that the University's lawyers, practitioners from a Kansas City firm, were "driving and dramatic" in their opening presentation. They contended that Gaines' remedy lay with the officials of Lincoln University. During the trial, it was admitted that Gaines was otherwise qualified for admission to the law school and that he was denied admission solely on the basis of his race. Nevertheless, the disposition of the trial judge was clear enough to Houston. In the memorandum to his office, he concluded that "it is beyond expectation that the court will decide in our favor, so we had just as well get ready for the appeal.”23 The court eventually entered a judgment for the University.
The case was later appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. When the case reached that court, it held that "the established public policy of this State has been and now is, to segregate the white and Negro races.”24 The Court also concluded that the laws providing for separate schools were not forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. Houston and Redmond argued that the laws requiring segregation did not extend to state-supported colleges and universities. After reviewing various statutes establishing Lincoln University "for the higher education for the Negro race,”25 the Court disagreed and held that there was "a clear intention on the part of the Legislature to separate the white and Negro races for the purpose of higher education."26
Houston and Redmond also contended that broadly worded statutory language, which made state-supported higher education available to "all youths" who were residents of Missouri, could not be interpreted to restrict admission to white students. According to the Court, however, such an expansive reading would be "at war" with other statutory provisions which, in the Court's view, evidenced a "clear and unmistakable intention on the part of the Legislature to separate the races for the purpose of higher education."27
Houston and Redmond also claimed that the state's actions denied Gaines equal protection of the law.
After explaining somewhat cryptically that "color carries with it natural race peculiarities" and that "[t]hese differences create different social relations," the Court relied on Plessy v. Ferguson to conclude that "[e]quality" and not identity of privileges and rights, is what is guaranteed to the citizen."28 Based on this reasoning, the Court held that Gaines would not be deprived of any property rights in violation of the Federal or Missouri Constitutions if the educational opportunities provided by the State were substantially equal to those furnished to white citizens of the State." 29
Addressing this question, the Court noted that Gaines had not applied for admission to Lincoln University but if he had done so, the Board of Curators at Lincoln would have been obligated to establish a law school "or furnish him opportunity for training elsewhere, substantially equal to that furnished white students at the University of Missouri."30 The Court further stated that the law departments of universities located in adjacent states admitted non-resident Black students, and that the programs of instruction offered at those institutions were as "sound, comprehensive [and] valuable"31 as the University of Missouri's curriculum. In an effort to bolster its finding of "substantial equality," the Court observed that the distance Gaines would be required to travel to attend law schools located in adjacent States would not be any greater than the distance white residents in some areas of Missouri would have to travel to attend the University of Missouri.
In an apparent attempt to placate Gaines, the Court struck down a statutory provision which would have limited the funds supplied to Gaines to the difference between the tuition and fees charged by the University of Missouri and the cost of attending an out-of-state law school and held that the State of Missouri would be required instead to pay "full tuition in the law department of the university of an adjacent state.”32
Houston and Redmond's final argument was that the Missouri Court should follow the Maryland Court's reasoning in Murray. In the Court's view, however, the circumstances which prompted the Murray decision in Maryland were "radically different" because unlike Missouri, Maryland had not made adequate provisions for the higher education of Black students as Missouri had done with Lincoln University. Based on these findings, the Supreme Court of Missouri held "that the opportunity afforded [Gaines] for a law education in the university of an adjacent State is substantially equal to that offered to white students by the University of Missouri.”33
Gaines was appealed to the United States Supreme Court. On the day before the oral arguments, Houston rehearsed his argument before a group of students and professors at Howard University Law School. This was one of the first of several "dry runs" that were conducted at Howard in Civil Rights cases.34 On the following day, the University argued that Gaines was not entitled to a writ of mandamus because "if, on the date when [Gaines] applied for admission to the University of Missouri, he had instead applied to the Curators of Lincoln University it would have been their duty to establish a Law School.“35 The Supreme Court found no such "mandatory duty" because the statute on which the University relied left "to the judgment of the curators to decide when it will be necessary and practicable to establish a law school."36 More important, the Supreme Court acknowledged the realities of the situation when it stated that "the fact remains that instruction in law for Negroes is not now afforded by the State either at Lincoln University or elsewhere in the State."37 Based on these findings, the Court reasoned that the real issue was "the question of whether the provision for the legal education in other States of Negro residents of Missouri is sufficient to satisfy the constitutional requirement of equal protection."38
In the Court's view, the quality of legal education provided by States adjacent to Missouri was irrelevant since it determined that the question to be resolved was "what opportunities Missouri itself furnishes to white students and denies to Negroes solely upon the ground of color."39 According to the Court, each state has an independent constitutional obligation to provide equal educational opportunities and this requirement could not be shifted from one state to another.40 The Court also concluded that the right to equal protection is a "personal one." Therefore, "the State was bound to furnish [Gaines] within its borders facilities for legal education substantially equal to those which the State there afforded for persons of the white race."41 Since the State had, in this instance, failed to establish a law school for Black students, the Court held that Gaines was entitled to admission to the University of Missouri Law School.
The Gaines decision was important because the Supreme Court recognized that Black students were entitled to equal educational opportunities and that this obligation could not be satisfied by the provision of out-of state scholarships. For perhaps the first time, the Court actually held that a State was obligated to admit a Black student to a racially segregated school. Houston's "equalization" strategy had borne fruit and the fight against segregation in public schools was well underway. After Gaines, equalization cases were filed in several states and by 1950, the groundwork for the successful direct challenge in Brown had been carefully and firmly established.42