Gong Lum v. Rice

Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) stands out as the case within which the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly extended the pernicious doctrine of “separate but equal” that it introduced at the national level to public education in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). At issue in Gong Lum, which was decided 27 years prior to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), were two related issues. The first issue was whether the state of Mississippi was required to provide a Chinese citizen equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment when he was taxed to pay for public education but was forced to send his daughter to a school for children of color. The second question that the Court addressed was whether the state denied a Chinese citizen of the United States equal protection of the law in classifying her among the “colored” races, and provided facilities for education that, although separate, were equal to those offered to all children, regardless of their race.

Facts of the Case

Gong Lum was a resident of Rosedale, Mississippi, father of 9-year-old Martha Lum. Martha, a native-born citizen of the United States, attended the first day of school at the Rosedale Consolidated School. However, at the noon recess, the superintendent notified her that she would not be allowed to return to the school, solely on the ground that she was of Chinese descent and not a member of the White or Caucasian race.

After a state trial court entered a mandamus order in favor of Gong Lum, directing officials to readmit his daughter, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed in favor of the board. On further review, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed in favor of the state of Mississippi.

The Court’s Ruling

Citing Cumming v. Richmond County Board of Education (1899), wherein it upheld a state law that allowed separate high schools for Black and White students, in Gong Lum, the Supreme Court asserted that the state has the right and power to regulate the method of providing for the education of its youth at public expense. To this end, the Court found that the circumstances in 1927 prevented it from finding that the state’s action was a denial of the plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court indicated that there could be no denial of equal protection of the laws or denial of any privileges belonging to the plaintiff since he was not a citizen of the United States.

The Supreme Court next rejected the plaintiff’s claim that he was required to pay taxes but could not send his daughter to the school of his choice. The Court was of the opinion that because state taxes supported education, the issue had to be resolved by the states. Accordingly, the Court observed that any interference on the part of federal judiciary with the management of the schools could not be justified except in the case of a clear and unmistakable disregard of rights secured by the supreme law of the land.

By borrowing heavily from the Cumming case, in Gong Lum, the Court orchestrated a decision that left a system in place that required all residents to pay taxes with no regard to race, but organized schools along racial lines, denying attendance for those of the socalled colored races. The Court was satisfied that since the entire activity was a state endeavor, it was thereby insulated from interference by the federal judiciary.

The second question addressed was whether a Chinese citizen of the United States, Martha Gong Lum, had been denied equal protection of the laws when educational officials classified her among the “colored” races and had been furnished with facilities for education equal to those offered to all, no matter what “color.” The Supreme Court essentially answered the major part of this inquiry when it implicitly considered whether Martha was classified as “White” or “colored.” Even though Martha and her family attempted to separate themselves from those of color, the law of the state and the Supreme Court saw this differently, declaring that she was, in fact, not White.

In reaching its judgment on the second issue, the Supreme Court was mostly finished with its analysis in pointing out that since this was not a new question, it did not call for a full argument. Citing a long list of cases reaching back as far as Roberts v. City of Boston (1849), apparently the first case to introduce the notion of “separate but equal,” and highlighting its extension to the national scene in Plessy (1896), the Court concluded that this same question had been decided many times, with the same result. According to the Court, the answer was that classifying students based on race to receive the benefit of education is within the constitutional power of the state legislatures of Mississippi and that the U.S. Constitution protected this action from the intervention of the federal judiciary.

Mark A. Gooden

See also Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Brown v. Board of Education and Equal Educational Opportunities; Equal Protection Analysis; Fourteenth Amendment; Plessy v. Ferguson

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