By Sonia Katyal, Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law & Eduardo M. Peñalver, Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School
Fifty years ago, 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.
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.
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."
Whether the Greensboro students knew it or not, in violating property rights as they did, they tapped into a long tradition within the history of Anglo-American property law. For as long as there has been private ownership, it seems, there have been groups who have sought to challenge the prerogatives of ownership in search of a more just social order. Sometimes these movements have succeeded. More often, they have not. But the pervasive influence of these property outlaw tactics on the development of American property doctrine cannot be denied. In Property Outlaws, we explore the sit-in episode (along with scores of other examples of property lawbreaking) to try to extract broader lessons about the interaction between disobedience and ownership.