The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era
The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era

The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era

by Christopher W. Schmidt


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On February 1, 1960, four African American college students entered the Woolworth department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and sat down at the lunch counter. This lunch counter, like most in the American South, refused to serve black customers. The four students remained in their seats until the store closed. In the following days, they returned, joined by growing numbers of fellow students. These “sit-in” demonstrations soon spread to other southern cities, drawing in thousands of students and coalescing into a protest movement that would transform the struggle for racial equality.

The Sit-Ins tells the story of the student lunch counter protests and the national debate they sparked over the meaning of the constitutional right of all Americans to equal protection of the law. Christopher W. Schmidt describes how behind the now-iconic scenes of African American college students sitting in quiet defiance at “whites only” lunch counters lies a series of underappreciated legal dilemmas—about the meaning of the Constitution, the capacity of legal institutions to remedy different forms of injustice, and the relationship between legal reform and social change. The students’ actions initiated a national conversation over whether the Constitution’s equal protection clause extended to the activities of private businesses that served the general public. The courts, the traditional focal point for accounts of constitutional disputes, played an important but ultimately secondary role in this story. The great victory of the sit-in movement came not in the Supreme Court, but in Congress, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark legislation that recognized the right African American students had claimed for themselves four years earlier. The Sit-Ins invites a broader understanding of how Americans contest and construct the meaning of their Constitution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226522302
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Series: Chicago Series in Law and Society Series
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Christopher Schmidt is professor of law and associate dean for faculty development at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where he also codirects the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States. He is a faculty fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

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The Students

We want the world to know that we no longer accept the inferior position of second-class citizenship. We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship.

— Student newsletter, Barber-Scotia College, Concord, North Carolina, February 1960

As the lunch counter demonstrations spread across the South in early 1960, drawing in thousands of students and capturing the nation's attention, everyone — blacks, whites, supporters, opponents, the students themselves — struggled to figure out what was happening. Why had college students suddenly emerged as the protagonists of the nation's civil rights struggle? Why had they taken up this bold sit-in tactic? Why, of all the daily injustices that African Americans suffered in the South, did they focus on lunch counters? What was it about these particular protests that allowed them to catch on across the South like they did?

This chapter considers these questions from the perspective of the African American students who took part in the lunch counter protests in the winter and spring of 1960. When the students explained why they had been moved to action and what they hoped to achieve, one theme dominated: the sit-ins were about dignity. They spoke of the indignities of being refused service at a downtown lunch counter or cafeteria. They described the sense of pride they felt when they walked into one of these establishments, sat down, and refused to leave until served. Even efforts to embarrass and demean them — whites dumping food on their heads, knocking them off their stools, kicking them on the floor; police officers marching them out of the stores and into police stations; judges telling them they were criminals — became, in the eyes of the students, new opportunities to display and demand recognition of their inalienable dignity. "I will not accept a back seat," announced one student leader following his first sit-in. "I will not accept being cast aside. I will not accept being ignored because I am a Negro."

It is tempting to leave it here, with the sit-ins as a parable of resilient human dignity. Generations of subjugation and humiliation created a reservoir of frustration that eventually overflowed, expressed in an act of youthful resistance so simple and humane that it thrust before the eyes of a reluctant nation an object lesson in the vicious delusions of white supremacy.

Yet while this parable dominates American popular memory of the sit-ins — which we celebrate at commemorative events, watch in documentaries, and read about in everything from works of historical scholarship to picture books for children — it is limited as an explanation for this transformative chapter in American history. To explain why the sit-ins occurred when they did and achieved what they did requires situating the students' timeless claim of human dignity into its particular historical moment. We need to consider why thousands of young men and women shook loose the routines of their lives, why the protests took place at this time, and why, of all the indignities Jim Crow exacted, the students targeted this particular form of racial subordination. Economic and political factors — including the post–World War II growth of the African American middle class and explosion of American consumer culture — played key roles, as did the inspiring examples of anti-colonialism movements overseas and protests against segregation at home. To these, I add a factor that largely has been overlooked in histories of the sit-ins: the legal landscape of America in 1960.

Assumptions about what the law required, what it allowed, its capacity to uproot unjust practices, and the role of lawyers and courts in social change efforts all played a powerful role in defining how the students understood their situation. Although it was a moral sensibility — a belief that this form of racial discrimination was simply wrong — rather than any desire to make a legal claim that moved them to action, most of these young activists seemed to assume that the law was somehow on their side. They were demanding "rights which are already legally and morally ours," explained the leaders of the Atlanta student movement. Their actions were animated by the belief that the racial discrimination they suffered on a daily basis at these lunch counters was just as much a violation of their fundamental rights as discrimination in schools or voting or the many other realms of public life into which Jim Crow had extended its reach.

As this chapter will detail, the sit-ins took shape at an opportune moment in the legal battle against Jim Crow. Legal breakthroughs such as the Supreme Court victory in Brown v. Board of Education had raised expectations for change. These expectations had dissolved into frustration as court-centered implementation failed to move a defiant white South to desegregate its schools. In launching the sit-in movement, the students offered an alternative to the litigation and lobbying campaigns that had promised so much but delivered so little.

The legal situation in 1960 also shaped the students' choice of target. One of the reasons racial discrimination at lunch counters was such an inviting and powerful objective for the sit-ins was the fact that, unlike schools or the polls, established civil rights organizations had largely avoided direct challenges to this particular facet of Jim Crow. Civil rights lawyers recognized the distinctively difficult legal dilemmas raised by privately operated businesses that served the public and thus focused their energies elsewhere. The relative neglect of this issue by others served the student movement well. Few of the students appreciated the concerns about constitutional doctrine that steered civil rights organizations away from the challenging discriminatory lunch counter service in the South. What they knew was that this was an offensive practice and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Among the students themselves and among outside sympathizers, the sit-ins resonated in large part because it was clear that this was the students' protest, that it was not being orchestrated by faraway civil rights strategists or radical ideologues.

The students turned legal dilemmas into social movement opportunities. The atmosphere of frustrated expectations and legal uncertainty surrounding the sit-in protests proved critical to their achievements.

The Sit-Ins Begin


As the sit-in movement spread across the South, many were left wondering: Where did this all come from? Everyone seemed to have an explanation. The students tended to emphasize the spontaneous elements of the sit-ins. The protests, they insisted over and over again, were nothing more than a necessary, commonsense response to this particular racial injustice. They were tired of the indignities of segregation, and no one seemed to be doing anything that actually changed their lives, so they acted. Leaders of civil rights organizations emphasized connections between the 1960 sit-ins and earlier protest campaigns — campaigns in which their organizations had more conspicuous roles. Segregationist opponents insisted that the students were actually controlled by "outside" groups intent on instigating racial unrest (perhaps not just outside the South, some insinuated, or just bluntly stated, but outside the United States).

Putting aside baseless claims that foreign Communists were behind the sit-ins, each of these seemingly contradictory explanations contain seeds of truth. The sit-in movement was a break from the past, a bold and largely unplanned venture into uncharted waters. Yet at the same time, established civil rights organizations played critical roles in the movement, and previous protest efforts, including earlier sit-ins, also contributed to the 1960 movement. A movement this decentralized, built upon thousands of individual and small-group decisions, was the child of many parents. It was spontaneous and independent. It was also a product of a complex network of communication between protest communities and the result of years of careful organization and planning. In its many locations and over its half-year life span, the sit-in movement was all these things.

The two decades preceding the Greensboro sit-ins saw sporadic sit-in protests at lunch counters and restaurants. In the 1940s, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a newly formed interracial organization committed to nonviolent protest, led restaurant sit-ins in Chicago; delegates at a Congress of Industrial Organizations meeting in Columbus, Ohio, sat in at a segregated restaurant; and African American federal employees in Washington, DC, sat in at segregated eating establishments. In the 1950s, CORE organized sit-ins in cities in the North as well as the Upper South. In 1959, CORE reached deeper into the South when it organized a series of sit-ins in Miami in conjunction with a workshop it held in the city.

Another precursor to the Greensboro sit-ins was a protest campaign in the late 1950s that began in Oklahoma City and spread to cities across the Midwest. In 1958, members of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council — led by Clara Luper, a high school teacher and the group's adviser — organized a series of lunch counter sit-in protests. Luper took a group of black children, ages seven to fifteen, into a downtown Oklahoma City drugstore, where, after being refused service, they sat until closing time. After several days of protests, the store's corporate management decided to desegregate lunch counters at its nearly forty stores in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. When members of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, Kansas, heard about Oklahoma City, they began their own lunch counter sit-in. From there, sit-in protests and boycotts spread to several other cities in Oklahoma and Kansas.

Although some scholars have insisted that these sit-ins, not the ones that took place in Greensboro in February 1960, mark the true beginning of the sit-in movement, it is important to recognize the limitations of the earlier protests. The press gave little coverage to these events. Victories could be frustratingly uneven. Lunch counters that activists thought they had desegregated would sometimes revert back to racial exclusion. The NAACP national office made no effort to publicize the actions of their youth branches. In fact, NAACP officials chastised Luper for organizing the protest and urged her to stop.

The significance of these scattered, occasionally effective protests took on a new meaning after February 1960. Once it became clear that the sit-in movement was something to be embraced, the NAACP leaders discovered a new appreciation for what their Youth Councils in the Midwest had been doing in the preceding years, and they sought to link the Greensboro protests to the earlier sit-ins. The leader of the Durham NAACP Youth Council would later claim to have talked to the Greensboro Four (each of whom had connections to the NAACP through the Youth Councils) about earlier sit-in protests in nearby Durham. CORE founder James Farmer claimed that a CORE pamphlet that described early sit-in protests inspired the Greensboro Four to act.

Despite these after-the-fact efforts, there was little evidence that these early protests had made much of an impression, if any, on those who initiated the 1960 sit-ins. The Greensboro Four, according to a person who interviewed them in the midst of the sit-in movement, had "heard vaguely of scattered protests such as the sit-in demonstration in Oklahoma in 1958, but their knowledge of this was hazy." In the many interviews they gave and statements they made in the winter and spring of 1960, they never mentioned earlier sit-ins. The influence the precursor sit-ins had on the student sit-in movement of 1960 was not as their model or inspiration, but as a piece of recent history that in February 1960 suddenly became a precious commodity among established civil rights activists struggling to claim a piece of credit for this new movement.


When Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond walked into the Greensboro Woolworth on the afternoon of February 1, 1960, their demonstration could very well have followed the pattern of these earlier sit-ins. They could have gotten some local attention. They could have convinced a local restaurant operator to stop discriminating. Maybe, as in Oklahoma, they could have even inspired others to follow. But this time, to everyone's surprise, including the four freshman who started it all, things turned out quite differently.

From the first afternoon sitting at the Woolworth lunch counter, the Greensboro Four knew what they wanted. They wanted to be served while seated at the counter, just like any other paying customers. They wanted to demonstrate — to themselves, to their classmates, to their parents, to the whites who defended segregation — the severity of the injustice of racial discrimination and their commitment to doing something about it. Beyond this, as they were the first to admit, they had no elaborate plan of action. In the end, their February 1 sit-in is best described, in the words of historian Clayborne Carson, as "a simple, impulsive act of defiance."

As more protesters joined the sit-ins in Greensboro, the demands of organizing and negotiation forced themselves upon the students. Thus began an often uneasy dance between the inspired spontaneity that brought the movement to life and the inescapable demands for strategy and guidance. Three days into the protest, the head of the Greensboro NAACP, George Simkins — who had no experience with and assumed the national NAACP office had little interest in this kind of protest — contacted CORE for help. Two CORE field secretaries headed to the South to conduct workshops in nonviolent protests, while others organized pickets of Woolworth and Kress stores in the North. CORE was the first of the national civil rights organizations to take decisive action in support of the students.

As the Greensboro sit-ins gained strength, the opposition mobilized. On the fifth day of the sit-ins, with protesters numbering in the hundreds, the local Ku Klux Klan arrived in downtown Greensboro, joining forces with what one reporter described as "young white toughs with ducktail haircuts." "There were loud rebel yells, catcalls and clapping by white teen-agers along with shouts of 'tear him to pieces' and loud profanity." When these "toughs" paraded around waving Confederate flags, black students responded by waving American flags. As the tension rose, student spokespersons emphasized the need to maintain the decorum that they felt was integral to the protest. "We don't expect violence," one explained, "but if it comes we will meet it with passive resistance. This is a Christian movement." The police were there in force, with over thirty plainclothes and uniformed officers on the scene. Officers escorted a number of white men and women who were verbally abusing the protesters out of the store and arrested three white men — one for drunkenness, one particularly vocal person for disorderly conduct, and one who tried to set fire to a protester's coat for assault.

That night, student leaders found themselves in a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with representatives from the local Woolworth and Kress stores and administrators from the area colleges (who were generally sympathetic toward the students' cause but not their tactics). The store managers agreed to a two-week study period to investigate whether local custom would allow for an integrated seating policy, but only if the students halted their sit-ins. When the student leaders shared their proposal at a meeting of about fourteen hundred students (which they did "without conviction," complained the chancellor of the Greensboro branch of the University of North Carolina, who was leading the negotiations), it was unanimously rejected. The sit-ins continued.

The next day was Saturday, and the sit-in protesters were waiting outside the Woolworth when it opened. Soon some six hundred people — integrationists, segregationists, newspaper reporters, and curious onlookers — crammed into the eating area. Around midday someone called the store to say there was a bomb in the basement. The police emptied the store, but they found no bomb. "The Negro students set up a wild round of cheering as the announcement of closing was made and carried their leaders out on their shoulders," reported the local newspaper. They moved on to the nearby Kress store, which promptly shut down. Then they marched back to campus, chanting, "It's all over" and "We whipped Woolworth." Police blockaded the street behind them to prevent the white counter-protesters from following. The mayor issued a statement that praised the students for being "orderly and courteous," asserted that "peace and good order will be preserved throughout our city," and called on students and business operators to find a "just and honorable resolution of this problem." That night the students held another mass meeting. This time, they agreed to a two-week sit-in moratorium, for the purpose of "negotiation and study." When the Woolworth and Kress stores reopened on Monday, they kept their lunch counters closed. The first stage of the Greensboro sit-ins had come to a close.


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Table of Contents

1 The Students
2 The Lawyers
3 The Sympathizers
4 The Opponents
5 The Justices
6 The Lawmakers

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