Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Legal Challenges – Education

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Credit: Lincoln University Picture Collection, Inman E. Page Library, Jefferson City, MO

Several landmark court cases originating in Missouri were instrumental in the fight for civil rights. Among those cases, two focused on equality in higher education.  

Gaines v. Canada

Lloyd Gaines moved to Missouri from Mississippi in 1926 when he was 15 years old. Although he was far behind his peers academically due to the low-quality education he received before his family relocated to Missouri, his aptitude for learning helped him quickly advance in school.

He graduated from Vashon High School in St. Louis as the vice president of his class. He then attended Stowe Teachers College in St. Louis for a short time before enrolling at Lincoln University in Jefferson City where he earned a degree in history. After graduation, he set a new goal for himself: law school.

At the time, all schools in Missouri were segregated. Since there was no Black university that offered a law program, Gaines applied to the University of Missouri School of Law, but ultimately he was denied attendance due to his race.

Gaines sued the university with support from the NAACP. His attorneys argued that Gaines should be admitted since there was not an equivalent law school program at a Black university in the state. The case was heard by the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled against him in 1937.

His attorneys appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in Gaines’ favor and stated that the University of Missouri School of Law had to admit him, or a new law school for Black students had to be established.

The Missouri Legislature quickly created a separate law school for Black students, but the NAACP decided to pursue the case further to force the university to admit Gaines. A short time later, Gaines disappeared. Without a plaintiff, the lawsuit was dismissed, and Gaines was never found.

 In 2006, the University of Missouri posthumously granted an honorary law degree to Gaines.

Bluford v. Canada

From a young age, Lucile Bluford was a dedicated student with a clear talent for writing. She earned a degree in journalism at the University of Kansas because the only Black university in Missouri, Lincoln University, did not have a journalism program. The University of Missouri’s renowned school of journalism only accepted white students.

During her time in college, Bluford began working part-time for The Kansas City Call, a popular Black newspaper. After graduation, she joined the staff full time. It wasn’t long before she became known for her work as a writer and as an activist.

Inspired by Lloyd Gaines, Bluford applied to the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1939 to pursue a graduate degree. She was initially accepted, but when the university discovered her race, she was not admitted.

Once again, the NAACP supported a lawsuit against the University of Missouri in an attempt to gain equal education opportunity for all students. For three years Lucile attempted to enroll at the university and filed three lawsuits. In 1941, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in her favor because there was no “separate but equal” journalism program offered in Missouri. Before Bluford had an opportunity to attend the University of Missouri, the school closed its journalism program, citing a shortage of students due to World War II.

Bluford documented her legal journey through articles she wrote for The Call. Her writing condemned discrimination and called on readers to actively work toward advancing the civil rights of Black citizens. During the 71 years she worked for The Call – as a reporter, editor, publisher and owner – she became known as the “Conscience of Kansas City.”

In 1989, the University of Missouri awarded an honorary doctorate degree to Bluford.