Protests in which African Americans took seats and sought service at lunch counters and other public accommodations from which by law, local custom, or the wishes of the proprietor they were excluded because of their race.
The aim of sit-in demonstrations, which involved peacefully attempting to use lunch counters or other public facilities by sitting in the place of business and asking for service, was to desegregate these counters and other public facilities. Some early sit-ins took place in 1939 at the city library in Alexandria, Virginia, and during World War II in Washington, D.C., by Howard University students and in Chicago by members of the Congress of Racial Equality. Young people also engaged in sit-ins in Oklahoma City beginning in 1958. However, sit-in demonstrations really came into their own as a form of protest with the sit-ins at the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February, 1960.
Protesters stage a sit-in civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1965.
Between the February, 1960, demonstrations and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, numerous sit-ins took place across the South. Some led to desegregation without arrests. However, arrests took place in every former Confederate state and in states bordering the South as well. Dozens of cases made their way to the Supreme Court. The Court addressed issues such as equal protection, due process, property rights, and state action, but in no decision did it squarely face the central issues or declare a right to protest against segregation.
In Garner v. Louisiana
The Court’s unanimous decision masked a divergence in perspectives that made the decisions in subsequent sit-in cases by no means certain. Justices William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and John M. Harlan II each wrote separate concurring opinions. Harlan stated that provided the demonstrators had the owner’s consent to be there, their First Amendment freedom of political expression protected what they had done. Douglas thought that given the degree of white commitment to segregation in Louisiana, the demonstrators surely threatened the peace by their actions, so sufficient evidence existed to sustain the convictions. He insisted, however, that the protest had occurred in places of public accommodation and that the sit-in participants had a right to be there and to seek and get service. Therefore, the actions of the police in arresting them and of the courts in convicting them constituted state action in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In Peterson v. City of Greenville
In Bell v. Maryland
Bell v. Maryland proved a particularly difficult case for the Court. Eventually the justices split into three groups of three. Chief Justice Warren and Justices Douglas and Arthur J. Goldberg wished the Court to address the constitutional issue of state action deployed to support segregated public accommodations, whatever the source of the segregation. Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., Potter Stewart, and Tom C. Clark would go only as far as to send the case back to the Maryland courts to determine whether a new Baltimore civil rights ordinance, together with a new Maryland public accommodations statute, might be the basis for invalidating the convictions. Justices Harlan, Hugo L. Black, and Byron R. White, reduced to a minority since the preliminary vote, stuck with their votes to affirm the convictions. The Court issued its decision in June, 1964, three days after a new civil rights bill went to President Lyndon B. Johnson for his signature.
More sit-in cases came before the Court after the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Bell, Derrick A., Jr. Race, Racism and American Law. 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Random House, 1998. Irons, Peter. The Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court. New York: Free Press, 1988. Miller, Loren. The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro. Cleveland: World, 1966. Schwartz, Bernard. Super Chief, Earl Warren and His Supreme Court: A Judicial Biography. New York: New York University Press, 1983. Sitkoff, Harvard. The Struggle for Black Equality, 1954-1992. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.
Civil Rights movement
Race and discrimination