The Montgomery County Courthouse sit-in was a protest in February 1960 organized by a group of students from Alabama State College (present-day Alabama State University, ASU) that targeted the court’s whites-only lunch counter. The protest prompted two weeks of marches and protests in Montgomery and led to the expulsion of nine students identified as organizers. The legal case that emerged from that expulsion, Dixon vs Alabama State Board of Education, became a landmark ruling that students of higher education deserve due process.
The Alabama State College (ASC) action was inspired by four black students at North Carolina A&T University who were refused service at the F.W. Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960. The Greensboro sit-in protests, the subsequent backlash against them, and similar protests across the country drew extensive media coverage. On Thursday, February 25, 1960, a group of 35 ASC students occupied all but one table in the Montgomery County Courthouse lunchroom and asked to be served. The owner immediately closed the restaurant, called the police, and demanded everyone leave. The sit-in prompted an immediate response from state and local leaders. Gov. John Patterson ordered ASC president Harper Councill Trenholm to identify and expel the students and city leaders also denounced the protest.
Over several days in the last week of February and into March, large groups of students, ranging from 250 to 4,000 individuals, gathered at the courthouse and local churches in support of the sit in. Several downtown restaurants and other government buildings with cafeterias placed armed guards at their doorways to impede protestors. Fearing violence, Ralph Abernathy canceled a march from his First Baptist Church to downtown on February 27. Several marches took place on the following days and Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd on February 29.
Patterson, in office just over one month, had expressed a commitment to strong law enforcement and had explicitly courted the support of segregationists during the gubernatorial campaign. On February 29, he publicly condemned the protests. When the organizers were identified, Patterson urged the all-white State Board of Education, for which he served as the chair, to expel them from the publicly funded school to prevent violence. Faced with the resolution from the state board and a threat to cut the school’s funding, Trenholm complied. On March 2, nine of the students Trenholm identified as organizers were expelled: Bernard Lee, St. John Dixon, James McFadden, Joseph Peterson, Edward English Jones, Leon Rice, Howard Shipman, Elroy Emory, and Marzette Watts. Twenty other students who participated in the sit-in were suspended.
News of the expulsions prompted a rally of about 200 students on the campus and approximately 1,000 students, or roughly half the enrollment of the college, voted to walkout of classes. The lunchroom in the Montgomery County courthouse was later reopened only to court employees and guests. Black employees in the courthouse were allowed to order food but prohibited from eating in the lunchroom. Over the next several days, students again walked out of classes, met for rallies, and were addressed by King. Meanwhile, Montgomery police commissioner Lester B. Sullivan announced that police would break up any meetings at the state capitol and segregationists drove through downtown with signs calling on whites to fire all black employees. Another large march to be led by Abernathy was called off on Sunday March 6 when marchers were blocked by officers from the Montgomery police department and other law enforcement agencies and firefighters as a crowd of whites surrounded the area. A protest on campus the following day was again confronted by police and the demonstrations gradually ceased. A total of 34 students and one teacher were subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct and disobeying an officer.
King, Abernathy, and other civil rights leaders appealed to Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and other federal officials on behalf of the students, but those calls went unanswered. Six of the expelled students, represented by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, subsequently sued the State Board of Education for reinstatement. They lost at trial in the state courts, but the federal Fifth Circuit Court overturned the verdict in Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, named for one of the students, St. John Dixon. The state appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case, thus affirming the lower court’s decision. The circuit court ruled that a public college could not expel students without at least minimal due process. This decision ended the practice of state universities disciplining students, acting in loco parentis, or as a parent, without regard to their constitutional rights. This ruling is now regularly cited to defend student activists from summary dismissals.
Despite the victory, none of the expelled students re-enrolled at ASC. On February 25, 2010, the 50th anniversary of the sit-in, however, Alabama State University president William Harris ceremonially reinstated the nine students. On May 8 that year, St. John Dixon, James McFadden and Joseph Peterson were awarded honorary degrees by the school. In May 2018, interim State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson expunged the files of all the students expelled and suspended as part of the sit-in. In his statement, Richardson declared that the actions of the State Board of Education had been “unjustified and unfair.”
- Lee, Philip. “The Case of Dixon v. Alabama: From Civil Rights to Students’ Rights and Back Again.” Teachers College Record 116(12): 1-18.
- Sharp, John. “Alabama Clears Lunch Counter Protesters 58 Years Later: ‘I Don’t Regret It At All.” AL.com, May 20, 2018.