For Missing Civil Rights Hero, a Degree at Last: In a Final Salute, University of Missouri School of Law Honors First Black Applicant

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If Lloyd Gaines is alive, his law degree is waiting for him. The University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law has decided to award an honorary degree to Gaines 70 years after the university denied him admission because of his race. It is sad, but few expect Gaines to show up at the May 13th graduation. He disappeared mysteriously in 1939 and hasn't been seen since.

"What happened to him is one of the great unsolved mysteries," says law school dean Lawrence Dessem. "It's somewhat extraordinary to give this to an individual who we presume is no longer around."

A former high school valedictorian, Gaines was only 24 years old when he was last seen in Chicago in 1939. Months earlier, he had been the victorious plaintiff in the landmark civil rights case, Gaines v. Canada, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Gaines' fight to equal protection under the law was violated when the University of Missouri School of Law rejected his application because he was Black.

The Gaines victory was the first Supreme Court test of the "separate but equal" clause and helped open the door to the historic Brown v. Board of Education case 17 years later. But the personal victory for Gaines was short-lived. The court case drew national headlines, and the NAACP moved Gaines to Chicago after he received death threats. But before he could attend law school, he vanished.

"We know that he would have been an outstanding attorney because he had the courage to fight this unjust decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," said Tim Heinsz, former Missouri law school dean, at a 1995 dedication ceremony in which a $100,000 scholarship for minority law students was announced in Gaines' name. "Although 'separate but equal' remained the law, the decision that Lloyd Gaines won was one of the first successful assaults, which would lead to the eventual destruction of this noxious doctrine."

The University of Missouri School of Law did not graduate a Black attorney until the 1970s. Today, in efforts to fight past wrongs, the university renamed the Black culture center in Gaines' name in 2000, and the law school offers a scholarship in his name to minority students. Granting Gaines an honorary degree would be the final salute.

"It's the highest honor we have," says Michael Middleton, who in 1985 was hired as the law school's first Black professor. "He was an outstanding student dedicated to public service and a man of great integrity. The Lloyd Gaines story has inspired me since I first learned of it as a student."

A PIONEER FOR EQUALITY IN EDUCATION

The Gaines case came amid a surge in litigation in the 1930s on behalf of Black education rights in the South. Fueled largely by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall attacked legally sanctioned segregation by teaming up with ambitious Black students who'd been denied entry into graduate schools. While working on the Gaines case, Houston and Marshall were also arguing on behalf of University of Maryland law school applicant Donald Gaines Murray, who was also denied entry because of his race, and Lucile H. Bluford, who was seeking admission to the University of Missouri's school of journalism. In Murray's case, the Supreme Court agreed, and in 1938, Murray became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Law. However, Bluford's case was denied.

At the time, many graduate and law schools in the South were avoiding integration by paying the tuition of Black students to attend out-of-state schools. This, they argued, complied with the Supreme Court's requirement that an education be provided to Black students in a 'separate but equal' setting. The crux of Houston and Marshall's argument was that separate Black schools were never equal and that forcing students out of state for an education put an unfair burden on them.

Gaines was an honor student at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. …