A brilliant new book titled The Sit-Ins: Protest & Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Chicago Press) examines the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s from a variety of perspectives. The result is a nuanced, educational experience for the reader.
Christopher W. Schmidt, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, has produced a worthy read to anyone who wants to understand how the sit-in movement galvanized the civil rights movement. He examines the movement – which began with four African-American college students at North Carolina AT&T in Greensboro sitting down at the segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s – from a myriad of perspectives, including students, lawyers, sympathizers, opponents, the justices, and the lawmakers.
When students started conducting sit-ins in cities across the South, including Nashville, they sometimes were met with harsh resistance from angry white mobs. The beauty of the non-violent direct action principle, associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Lawson, and other civil rights leaders, caused many in the nation to sympathize with the students and to question segregationist policies.
One of the more compelling parts of the book details the struggle that existing civil rights lawyers with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) had with the students protests. Some in the NAACP feared that the students’ actions were too hasty and should be coordinated with a more deliberative strategy at dismantling segregation policies. The younger African-American activists wanted change immediately and were willing to adopt a “jail, no bail” philosophy.
Another chapter details the struggles that U.S. Supreme Court Justices had with the sit-in cases that reached the High Court. In his concurring opinion in Garner v. Louisiana (1961), Justice John Marshall Harlan II viewed the sit-ins as a form of expression protected by the First Amendment – just as much if not more than a “a public oration from a soapbox on a street corner.” However, this view was not shared by other justices who were concerned with business owners’ property rights.
Schmidt also explains how the student sit-in movement eventually led to the U.S. Congress adopting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Title II of which prohibits racial discrimination in public accommodation.
The book should be required reading for anyone who wants to learn more about the role of law in the civil rights movement and how law interacts with social protest.