The Case of Dixon v. Alabama: From Civil Rights to Students' Rights and Back Again
Teachers College Record, Vol. 116, pp. 1-18, 2014
18 Pages Posted: 24 Dec 2014 Last revised: 11 Jan 2015
Date Written: December 23, 2014
On February 25, 1960, African American students from Alabama State College participated in a sit-in at a segregated lunch grill at the Montgomery County Courthouse. The lunch grill refused to serve the students and ordered them to leave. The students left and went to the courthouse corridor, where they remained for an hour before going back to campus.
When Alabama State College learned of the students’ actions, it summarily expelled them without notice or hearing. In expelling the students, the college relied on Alabama State Board of Education regulations that allowed it to expel students for “conduct unbecoming a student or future teacher in the schools of Alabama.” Six students challenged their expulsions in court for being in violation of their due process rights. They lost at trial and then won on appeal.
The case was Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education (1961). It was the first time that any American court recognized that students at a state university have due process protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Instead of allowing state universities to discipline their students without regard to their constitutional rights as they were permitted to do under the in loco parentis era, the Fifth Circuit mandated that state universities had to abide by constitutional restrictions. Specifically, it held that state universities must provide notice and some opportunity to be heard before they could expel their students for misconduct.
Dixon, by recognizing due process rights for students, marked the death of in loco parentis. University students were no longer viewed as mere children in the eyes of the law. This national transformation in the legal relationship between state universities and their students began with local student activism — namely, African American students protesting segregation policies at a lunch grill near their home campus. It ended with a Fifth Circuit case that ushered in a new era of constitutionally based students’ rights.
In this article, I move away from the typical due process analysis of this case and instead explore how the students’ civil rights activism was transformed into a fight for students’ rights, and I analyze the interplay of this transformation with future civil rights work. Specifically, I acknowledge that students’ rights, in general, benefited from the Dixon precedent. But I ask how the student activists who brought the case personally benefited. None were able to tell their stories in court in a way that challenged separate but equal laws. None of them took advantage of the due process that the Fifth Circuit ruled that Alabama State College must provide. None re-enrolled at the college after the case was over. And segregation was still alive and well in Alabama after Dixon was decided. So what did they win?
Using archival materials obtained from Alabama State University, documents contained in the Dixon case file, an autobiography of the attorney for the students, and legal texts on education law, I show how the motivations of the students to engage in their protest diverged from the legal significance of Dixon.
I conclude by arguing that despite the divergence of interests between the student activists and the lawyers, both the sit-in and the litigation empowered students all over the country to engage in the civil rights struggle. I provide examples of these student activists being afforded unprecedented levels of constitutional protection by courts that specifically rely on Dixon. Even though the Dixon plaintiffs’ original motivation to challenge Jim Crow diverged from the due process expansion that resulted from the case, these students’ goals were nonetheless furthered when other student activists for racial justice across the country were afforded constitutional due process protections during the height of the civil rights movement.
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