The Sit-Ins and the State Action Doctrine

Christopher W. Schmidt, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law


By taking their seats at “whites only” lunch counters across the South in the spring of 1960, African American students not only launched a dramatic new stage in the civil rights movement, they also sparked a national reconsideration of the scope of the constitutional equal protection requirement. The critical constitutional question raised by the sit-in movement was whether the Fourteenth Amendment, which after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) prohibited racial segregation in schools and other state-operated facilities, applied to privately owned accommodations open to the general public. From the perspective of the student protesters, the lunch counter operators, and most of the American public, the question of whether the nondiscriminatory logic of Brown should apply to public accommodations involved a consideration of the role of public accommodations in social life, the dignitary costs of exclusion, and the values served by the protection of private choice and associational rights within the commercial sphere. From the perspective of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers, the relevant question centered on a doctrinal issue that had been under considerable pressure in the two decades preceding the sit-ins: the “state action” requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time of the sit-ins, many assumed that resolution of the issue demanded a reconsideration of the state action doctrine. Yet, when given the opportunity, neither the Supreme Court, in a series of cases arising from the sit-in protests, nor Congress, in framing the public accommodations provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, took this path. As a matter of official constitutional interpretation, the state action doctrine survived the civil rights movement, modified somewhat but retaining the same basic form it had when the Court first defined it in the late nineteenth century. In this Article, I explain why the sit-in movement, which proved remarkably successful at changing attitudes, practices, and statutes, ultimately failed to change constitutional law. My analysis of the resilience of the state action doctrine draws on recent scholarship on extrajudicial constitutionalism, even as it challenges some of the premises that underlie this scholarship.