Friday, May 4, 2018

Some History About the History of the Sit-Ins

Thanks so much to the Legal History Blog team for inviting me to guest blog this month. I’ve recently published my first book, The Sit-Ins, and I’m excited to discuss that, as well as my next book project. I’ve been editor of Law & Social Inquiry for several years now, so I’ll also write about the process of submitting to a peer-review journal.

In this post, I’ll discuss how I came to write The Sit-Ins. In my next post, I’ll write about what I hope the book achieves as a contribution to legal history.

So why a book on the 1960 student lunch counter sit-ins? My answer to this question is pretty simple: because we need a book on the sit-ins.

A little backstory: I began to think about the sit-ins as an intriguing topic for a legal historian in my third year of law school. I had gone straight to law school after completing my Ph.D. in American Studies. I had a finished dissertation on “Postwar Liberalism and the Origins of Brown v. Board of Education,” which I assumed was going to be the basis for my first book. I took advantage of my time in law school to put that project to the side for a time while I explored some new topics. In my last year at Harvard, I found myself in a seminar on “Popular and Legislative Constitutionalism,” taught by Robert Post and Reva Siegel, who were visiting from Yale at the time.

When it came time to choose a writing topic for the seminar, I settled on the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins. I studied Supreme Court cases involving the appeals of criminal convictions of sit-in protesters in my constitutional law course, and I had been intrigued by the difficulties the justices had with these cases, which raised particularly challenging questions about the reach of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause (i.e., the “state action” doctrine). I thought it might be a fruitful “popular constitutionalism” seminar paper project to explore the connections between this iconic episode of social movement activism and the Court’s struggles with the sit-ins cases.

The first step of my research, I assume, would be to track down the books on the sit-in movement. I would then draw on these secondary sources to say something (hopefully something interesting) about how my case study illuminated the intersection between social protests and constitutional change. But, as I quickly discovered, there were no books—there was not even a book—on the sit-ins.

Plenty of people had written about the sit-ins. But the sit-in episode was always framed as part of a larger story. Survey histories of the civil rights movement always include a section on the sit-in movement. Some of the best writing about the sit-ins came in the form of a chapter or two in books centered on a particular city during the civil rights era. In this genre, William Chafe’s chapter on lunch counter sit-ins in his 1980 classic study of Greensboro, North Carolina, Civilities and Civil Rights, was the exemplary. (Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s section on the student movement in Atlanta in her brilliant 2011 book Courage to Dissent, which was published several years after I began my work on the sit-ins, is every bit as as good as Chafe’s chapter as a local social history of the sit-ins, while also delving into legal issues.) The most commonly cited source on the sit-ins was the sociologist Aldon Morris’s The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (1984), which includes excellent material on the dynamics of movement mobilization involved in the lunch counter protests.

But, still, I was struck by the fact that this famous episode in the history of the black freedom struggle had never merited a book of its own. I found a masters thesis and a Ph.D. dissertation written during the early 1960s that centered on the sit-ins, and a bunch of nice picture books for children, but no single work of historical scholarship on the 1960 lunch counter sit-in movement.

I wrote my law school seminar paper (relying more on primary source material than I had originally expected), which eventually turned into an article, and then a series of articles and essays. But from early on, I thought of my work on the sit-ins as moving toward a book—a book justified, at minimum, by the fact that someone needed to write a book on the sit-ins.

I wrote the book with this thought in mind, hoping that The Sit-Ins would not only make a contribution to our understanding of law, but also fill a surprising gap in the historical literature. This was a part of recent American history that people should know more about. So I wrote the book in a way that would be accessible for scholars beyond academic historians, as well as for students, lawyers, and, hopefully, the general readers. I hope in particular that The Sit-Ins will be used to introduce this episode of history to college-age students. They are, after all, the protagonists of the story. 

In my next post, I’ll explain why I believe the sit-in movement offers such an interesting and valuable case study as a topic of legal history.

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