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The civil rights movement of the 1960s embraced more than lawsuits aimed at ending racial segregation in southern public institutions. It also included several forms of direct action, such as "freedom rides," in which blacks would ride on buses and trains, refusing to confine themselves to places set aside for black passengers. The quintessential form of direct action was the sit-in demonstration. The practice began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Four black college freshmen went to a dime store lunch counter and ordered coffee. When they were told they would not be served, they sat at the counter, waiting, in silent protest against the indignity of racial discrimination. The next week they returned, joined by increasing numbers of students, white and black. Soon the sit-in technique spread to lunch counters throughout the South.

The impact of the sit-ins was enormous. Many stores and restaurants abandoned their discriminatory policies within a matter of weeks. Most, however, held out, and called the police. Sit-in demonstrators by the hundreds were arrested and charged with criminal trespass. From 1960 to 1964, the problem of the sit-ins came to the Supreme Court over and over again.

When the segregating restaurant was a state operation (for example, a lunch counter in a courthouse), the Court could reverse the conviction by analogy to brown v. board of education (1954). Even when the lunch counter was privately owned, the Court would reverse the conviction if it could find some public policy in the background, requiring or encouraging segregation. During the early 1960s the Court was pressed to abandon, or drastically alter, the state action limitation, so as to create an equivalent fourteenth amendment right to be free from racial discrimination in all privately owned public accommodations, irrespective of any state participation. The issue reached a climax—but not a resolution—in bell v. maryland (1964), when the Court again struck down a conviction on a narrow ground, without deciding the larger constitutional issue.

The Court was relieved of the need to face that issue when Congress adopted the civil rights act of 1964, which included a broad prohibition against racial discrimination in public accommodations. The Supreme Court quickly upheld the law's constitutionality in heart of atlanta motel v. united states (1964). Further, the Court held that the 1964 act applied with retroactive force, invalidating trespass convictions for sit-ins at public accommodations before the law's effective date (Hamm v. City of Rock Hill, 1964).

Kenneth L. Karst


Lewis, Thomas P. 1963 The Sit-In Cases: Great Expectations. Supreme Court Review 1963:101–151.

Paulsen, Monrad G. 1964 The Sit-In Cases of 1964: But Answer Came There None. Supreme Court Review 1964:137–170.

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