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Celebrating Trespassers

Our society still has a long way to go in undoing the legacy of America's apartheid past, but the Greensboro students deserve our gratitude for many of the strides we have made over the past half century.
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Fifty years ago this month, on Monday, February 1, 1960, Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joe McNeil, and David Richmond, all freshmen at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, walked into the cafeteria at the Woolworth's Store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat down at the counter and quietly waited for service. They received none.

Blair, McCain, McNeil, and Richmond were black, and Woolworth's, although not required to do so by law, followed the local "custom" of refusing to allow its black patrons to eat at its lunch counter. Though they received no service, the four men sat quietly and without incident. When the store closed at 5:30, they left.

The next morning, the four young men returned, along with sixteen other students from North Carolina A&T. By Thursday morning, the ranks of the sit-in participants had swelled to over sixty. Within a month, similar sit-in protests were occurring at department stores throughout the South. The fight for civil rights would never be the same.

As the sit-ins grew in strength, the department stores began to change their tactics. At first, the stores had responded to the protesters by ignoring them or closing down the lunch counters entirely, perhaps in hope that the students would quickly lose interest. But, as the protests persisted, and even grew, the stores began to assert their private property rights more forcefully.

Under the property law of most states at that time, owners of private businesses could refuse to serve anyone for any reason, and a person who failed to leave a store after being asked to do so by its proprietor was guilty of criminal trespass. When the protests showed no signs of abating on their own, store owners began to flex their property rights, and the arrests began.

On February 22, thirty-four students were arrested for criminal trespass in Richmond, Virginia, when they refused to leave the lunch counter at a large downtown department store after being instructed to vacate the premises. Over the succeeding days and months, hundreds more students were arrested in North Carolina, Virginia, and throughout the South for refusing to honor the racially discriminatory exercise of private property rights by the owners of lunch counters.

What had been, as one contemporary put it, a civil rights movement dominated by lawyers working quietly in courtrooms had become a mass phenomenon. The student-led sit-ins thrust the civil rights question to the forefront of the 1960 presidential elections, and there is a direct line between the students' activism and the passage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That landmark law, which prohibits racial discrimination in most privately-owned businesses, radically transformed rights of private ownership in the United States and has become one of our most successful civil rights statutes.

In the years since, movements across the political spectrum -- from ACT UP to Earth First! to Operation Rescue -- have emulated the Greensboro students' tactics. Whatever their merits, these frequent imitations have had the effect of obscuring the originality and heroism of the 1960 sit-ins. It's easy, in hindsight, to downplay the controversy that surrounded the students' tactics, but, at the time, the Greensboro protesters were maligned from all sides as threatening sacred rights of private property and the rule of law in pursuit of what many commentators considered to be a trivial interest in access to lunch counter service. Such criticism did not come just from conservatives and segregationists. According to one account, when Thurgood Marshall heard about the sit-ins, he proclaimed that "he was not going to represent a bunch of crazy colored students who violated the sacred property rights of white folks by going into their stores or lunch counters and refusing to leave when ordered to do so." And a black minister in Charlotte, North Carolina, lambasted the students' actions as "uncalled for, unnecessary, ill-advised and inexpedient."

The Greensboro protesters did not invent the sit-in tactic. The labor movement, for example, had made extensive use of sit-ins to agitate for the right to unionize in the 1930s. But the students' youthful vulnerability and courageous nonviolence, combined with the simple justice of their cause, made their brand of political expression uniquely and viscerally effective. Our society still has a long way to go in undoing the legacy of America's apartheid past, but the Greensboro students deserve our gratitude for many of the strides we have made over the past half century.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is a professor at Cornell Law School, where he teaches Property and Land Use law. Sonia Katyal is a professor at Fordham Law School, where she teaches Intellectual Property, Property and Civil Rights. Their forthcoming book, Property Outlaws (published by Yale University Press) explores the role of disobedience in the development of property law.