Sit-in demonstrations

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.Segregation, de jureSegregation, de jureCivil Rights movement

Protesters stage a sit-in civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C., in 1965.

(Library of Congress)

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.

The Cases

In Garner v. Louisiana[case]Garner v. Louisiana[Garner v. Louisiana] (1961), the Court overturned the convictions of a number of students who had participated in a sit-in. Trespass was not at issue, and property rights remained secure. A police officer had arrested the students without any request from the drugstore owner, who simply declined to serve them. Chief Justice Earl Warren, in the opinion for the Court, wrote that there was not enough evidence to convict the demonstrators of breach of peace.

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[case]Peterson v. City of Greenville[Peterson v. City of Greenville] (1963) and similar cases, the Court ruled that sit-in participants had been convicted under circumstances where state laws or city ordinances mandated segregation. Therefore, the convictions could not stand, although, in contrast to Garner, there was plenty of evidence that the demonstrators had broken the law.

In Bell v. Maryland[case]Bell v. Maryland[Bell v. Maryland] (1964), students had refused to leave a Baltimore, Maryland, restaurant when requested to do so, and they had been arrested and convicted for trespass. No state law or city ordinance required segregation. The proprietor had feared losing his white customers if he served black patrons, and this was not a lunch counter in a store where African Americans could shop for other things. The case made its way from the arrests in June of 1960, convictions in November, and affirmation in January of 1962 by the Maryland Court of Appeals, to oral argument before the Court in October of 1963. At first, a 5-4 majority voted to uphold property rights and the convictions in the absence of state action, but the Court was unprepared as yet to issue an opinion.

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.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

More sit-in cases came before the Court after the Civil Rights Act of 1964Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, but the act changed the law regarding public accommodations throughout the South, and the reason for sit-ins had largely passed. In Hamm v. Rock Hill[case]Hamm v. Rock Hill[Hamm v. Rock Hill] (1964), a 5-4 majority ruled that convictions pending appeal had to be thrown out if they could not have been secured had the new civil rights act existed at the time of the arrests. Justice Harlan wrote that the act substituted “a right for a crime.” On one basis or another, the Court had reversed convictions in every sit-in case that it had agreed to hear.

Further Reading

  • 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


Property rights

Race and discrimination

State action

Warren, Earl