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Fifty Years After the Sit-Ins: Events, Trends, and Recommendations

25 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2011 Last revised: 29 Sep 2011

Muriel Morisey

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: 2010


When four students at the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down for lunch at the downtown Woolworth's, they employed a long-established tool for social justice advocacy: the protest action. The Greensboro sit-ins were the first to receive extensive media coverage and national awareness, sparking students to mount similar lunch counter sit-ins across the South. Protest actions remain in the advocates' arsenal, but in the fifty years since the sit-ins on February 1, 1960, events and trends have altered the nature and scope of social justice advocacy. This essay identifies eight such developments, with particular attention to two questions they raise: (1) How should social reform strategies adapt to the growing number of social justice advocates and members of historically oppressed groups in powerful government positions? (2) How should reform efforts adapt to counteract the ignorance, misinformation, distrust of science, and blatant appeals to base impulses that permeate public policy discussions? I offer recommendations aimed at legal academics and conclude with personal reflections.

Events and Trends: 1. Social justice activists and members of the groups for whom they advocate now hold positions of power in all three branches of the federal government. 2. Legislative advocacy is now at the center of the social justice movement and is pivotal to its success. It has led to an array of federal statutes banning discriminatory practices that were common throughout the United States fifty years ago. 3. Millions of African Americans and Latinos have become active political participants, aided in large measure by the Voting Rights Act, in particular, and its bilingual ballot provisions. 4. The social justice coalition has expanded far beyond the interests of African Americans and now includes the rights of women, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and more. 5. In the wake of technological advances, particularly the Internet, advocates can reach millions of people instantaneously. Countless websites make written and visual content available to anyone with Internet access. 6. Appeals to morality, which were prevalent in the 1960s civil rights movement, appear to have diminished in significance. 7. Policy debates are tainted by widespread ignorance among the electorate and too often also among legislators. Misinformation and distrust of science permeate numerous public policy debates. 8. Those who would undo the half-century of progress since 1960 have been employing social justice movement strategies.

Recommendations: 1. Increase curricular offerings focused on legislative and regulatory decision-making. 2. Engage the enemy that is ignorance. 3. Continue and strengthen existing efforts at many law schools to validate careers in government and social justice advocacy as opportunities for policy influence, and establish such efforts where none currently exist. 4. Affirm that social justice issues include environmentalism, health care reform, and financial institution regulation, for problems in each of these areas affect communities of color disproportionately.

Keywords: civil rights legislation, sit-ins, race discrimination, civil rights advocacy, social justice

JEL Classification: K00, K30, K39, K40, K49

Suggested Citation

Morisey, Muriel, Fifty Years After the Sit-Ins: Events, Trends, and Recommendations (2010). Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law, Vol. 18, No. 1, p. 82, 2010; Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2011-32. Available at SSRN:

Muriel Morisey (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-3220 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)

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