The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
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Jim Crow Stories

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Gaines V. Canada (1938)
The Supreme Court

In the mid 1930s, Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the few African Americans to graduate from Harvard Law School, joined the NAACP to head its legal attack on Jim Crow. As the United States Supreme Court began to make decisions favorable to black rights regarding criminal procedures, Houston felt the time was right to challenge Jim Crow in other areas. He understood that judges would not overturn previous constitutional interpretations unless absolutely necessary. If he confronted the "separate but equal" doctrine laid down in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Court would most likely reject the challenge. But if Houston insisted that Plessy be enforced -- that is, if the NAACP sued a state to make its schools for black children equal to those for whites -- which Plessy did require -- then he could undermine segregation. The Gaines decision breached the walls of segregation. It meant that every state now either had to build a seperate graduate school for blacks or integrate. He reasoned that the states would either have to build new schools for blacks -- something they could not afford -- or admit them into white schools. If the Court agreed with his argument, then he could challenge segregation itself. Houston decided that the NAACP had to carefully pick cases that they stood a good chance on winning. Those cases would then establish a precedent that "would make plain the inequality" in the educational opportunities of blacks and whites. Houston was convinced that the battle for civil rights had to be won in the schools, but fought in the courts. He felt that his strongest case of inequality in education would at the graduate-school level. Most segregated states did not provide graduate studies for blacks, and did not allow them into white graduate schools. In Missouri he found the case he wanted.

Lloyd Gaines, a college graduate, had been denied entrance to the law school at the University of Missouri because he was black. Instead, Missouri offered to pay his expenses for law school outside the state. Houston argued that Missouri was obligated to either build a law school for blacks equal to that of whites or admit him to the University of Missouri. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
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The relevance of Gaines v.
Canada in the battle to end segregation in education.
The Gaines decision breached the walls of segregation. It meant that every state now had to either build a separate graduate school for blacks or integrate. Houston knew that the Gaines decision was monumental. By extending the reasoning of the Gaines case, states would have to either build equal facilities for blacks on every level or admit blacks to white schools. The Gaines case would prove to be a major stepping stone on the road to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 case that declared segregation in education unconstitutional.

-- Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...

In response to the Gaines decision, state officials in Missouri opened a law school at the all black Lincoln University.
Related Pages
Charles Houston


Plessy v. Ferguson

Brown v. Board

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