State of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada
Supreme Court Redefines "separate But Equal"
The NAACP had concentrated its efforts in the field of public education. In 1938, although the Court was still unwilling to overturn "separate but equal," it began to regard with skepticism state claims that all-black state sponsored institutions of higher learning were equivalent to their all-white counterparts. In Gaines's case, the proposal to establish an in-state law school for black students was just that--a proposal. Furthermore, the option of paying for Gaines to attend an out-of-state law school offended the principle of equal protection. As Chief Justice Hughes wrote in the opinion of the Court:
[T]he obligation of the State to give the protection of equal laws can be performed only where its laws operate . . . it is there that the equality of legal right must be maintained. That obligation is imposed by the Constitution upon the States severally as governmental entities . . . It is an obligation the burden of which cannot be cast by one State upon another, and no State can be excused from performance by what another State may do or fail to do.
The Supreme Court was not yet ready to throw out "separate but equal," but with Gaines the Court began to concede the difficulty--indeed, the near impossibility--of a state maintaining segregated black and white institutions which would be truly equal. In a similar subsequent case, Sweatt v. Painter (1950), the Court concluded that an all-black law school could not be the equivalent of an all-white law school precisely because the former excluded those with whom the black graduates would have to contend throughout their professional lives. And in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950), the Court ruled against a scheme for educating black and white graduate students in separate classrooms at the same institution. It was but a brief step to the watershed Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson once and for all.
The NAACP won Lloyd Gaines's case almost in spite of him. In August of 1937, he informed Houston that while he waited for the University of Missouri Law School to accept him, he intended to work towards an M.A. in economics at the University of Michigan. This was a major blow for the NAACP, as Gaines was proposing to use Missouri's money to fund an out-of-state education--a move that would completely undermine the NAACP's equal protection argument. Houston scrambled to help Gaines find alternative sources of financing. In October of 1939, after the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor and ordered the Missouri Supreme Court to reconsider his case under new guidelines, Gaines simply disappeared. When the University of Missouri subsequently moved the state supreme court for dismissal of the case, the NAACP did not oppose the motion.