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Divided by Law: The Sit-ins and the Role of the Courts in the Civil Rights Movement


A central goal of the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, the protests that launched the direct-action phase of the Civil Rights Movement, was to give new meaning to the very idea of “civil rights.” To the students who took part in the protests, civil rights work entailed litigation and lobbying. It required relying on the older generation of civil rights activists and working through established civil rights organizations. It meant surrendering student control over the demonstrations. And, as the great unrealized promise of the then 6-year-old Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education made painfully clear, it meant patience. For the thousands of students who joined the sit-in movement, reliance on their elders, litigation, and patience—the stuff of civil rights, traditionally understood—was precisely what they wanted to avoid.

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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