Happy Endings in History

Do I want my story to have a happy ending or a sad ending? As I was completing The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era, I found myself, to my surprise, stuck on this question.
Not the typical question the historian asks, right? If the history ends happily, then go happy. If not, go sad. Of course academic historians are serious folk, we write serious history, and sad is more serious than happy, so we usually go sad. If things are looking bright, point out the shadows. If things are looking dark, show just how serious (systemic, structural, durable) the dark is.

I suppose we’re allowed a happy-ending pass if we focus on groups who are working against immeasurable odds and resisting oppressive circumstances. But here too, even as we praise remarkable accomplishments, we must then rein in that optimism by ensuring the reader’s attention never strays far from the oppressive forces that remain, of setbacks down the road, of other groups that remain left behind.

Here’s the problem: I’m a happy guy. My glass is half full. I tend to be more curious about why good things happen than why bad things happen. This surely helps explain why I first became fascinated with the 1960 lunch counter sit-in movement, a moment in history that even the most pessimistic of historians would recognize as a remarkable achievement.

But, still, as I finished writing The Sit-Ins, I was stuck. Did I want to close the book by emphasizing what was achieved by this protest movement and the ensuing national debate over racial discrimination in public life? Or did I want to emphasize what the sit-ins failed to achieve? Was this to be a story of victory or noble defeat?

I went with a victory. I wanted to write a book that could not just explain but also inspire. Plus, historians are trained to listen carefully to the words of those whose lives they describe, and the students who sat in protests at lunch counters in the spring of 1960 talked all the time (during and afterwards) about the movement’s victories.

It is important to note that I had a choice here. And the reason I had a choice is because there are so many viable options for measuring victory. This point holds whether we impose our own definition of victory or whether we locate a definition of victory held by the historical actors themselves.

The most obvious measure of victory for the sit-in movement was the desegregation of pubic accommodations, a process that culminated in the passage and successful implementation of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But well before that unmistakable achievement, the students themselves identified countless other measures of success. Standing (and sitting) alongside thousands of other college students as part of this new, defiant movement was an achievement. Creating student-run organizations that would strategize and coordinate sit-in protests might be cited as a win for the movement. Students saw going to jail as a valuable experience, both for the individual protester and the larger movement. For the most dedicated of freedom fighters, even enduring a beating was a victory. “This was an experience we needed,” one participant explained about the violence against sit-in protesters. The Sit-Ins documents the many opportunities the protesters found to declare victory.

But there is another side to this story, one that emphasizes the conspicuous failures of the sit-in movement. Even as they strategized and touted these attainable movement victories, activists and their allies also defined their goals in a more idealistic, aspirational register. The sit-ins, as Ella Baker famously proclaimed, “are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger or even a giant-sized Coke.” The true goal of the movement, she said, was “to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination—not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”

We are willing to go to jail, be ridiculed, spat upon and even suffer physical violence to obtain First Class Citizenship,” one student group declared. For James Baldwin, the sit-in movement was aimed at “nothing less than the liberation of the entire country from its most crippling attitudes and habits.”

Measured by these standards, the sit-in movement might be classified as, at best, a qualified success. Or perhaps, if we use Baldwin’s standard as the benchmark, a noble failure.

In the midst of the battle over discrimination in public accommodations, few questioned the importance of the issue they were fighting over. The mere fact that white southerners fought so hard to protect their “right” to discriminate confirmed the importance of the issue. Yet once the battle was won, and Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was the law of the land, people on both sides began questioning the significance of the victory.

“Desegregation of public accommodations does not basically alter the pattern of social life anywhere,” observed a Mississippi restaurant operator. “That is why it has been accomplished as easily as it has.”

From a very different perspective, civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin arrived at much the same conclusion. “[W]e must recognize that in desegregating public accommodations, we affected institutions that are relatively peripheral both to the American socio-economic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of the Negro people,” he wrote in his famous 1965 essay, “From Protest to Politics.” The sit-ins had targeted “Jim Crow precisely where it was most anachronistic.” They had toppled an “imposing but hollow structure.”

Or, as the African American comedian Dick Gregory once explained: “I sat in six months once at a Southern lunch counter.  When they finally served me, they didn’t have what I wanted.” It’s a funny line, with enough truth to cast a shadow over any victory celebration.

What I settled on in the end was to acknowledge these voices of caution and pessimism but to not let them be the final word. I sought to convey the limitations of the changes the sit-in movement made possible, but to leave the reader with something more hopeful. Not quite a happy ending, but something closer to happy than sad.

Here are the closing paragraphs of The Sit-Ins:

The resolution of the issue first given prominence by the students sitting at lunch counters in the winter of 1960 was one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights era. This book is, in part, an effort to celebrate the sit- in movement and the legal battles over discrimination in public accommodations that the movement sparked. It is an effort to draw attention to this triumphant moment in our ongoing struggle for racial justice, to better understand why this campaign for social and legal change worked, when so many others did not.

Other battlefronts in the African American freedom struggle proved far more difficult to uproot than racial exclusion in public accommodations. The powerful synergy between social protest and legal change that made the campaign against racial discrimination in public accommodations so powerful and consequential was hard to replicate in other areas. The struggle to implement Browndragged out for decades, and we still face pervasive segregation in our schools. Disparities of wealth and income across racial lines persist, a particularly stubborn reminder of the continuing effects of slavery and Jim Crow. Racial disparities in our criminal justice system—from the stunning overrepresentation of racial minorities in our bloated prison populations to racially discriminatory police practices—remain one of the most significant challenges we face as a nation.

Our challenge is to find new ways combine social protest and legal claims to disrupt those practices and policies that perpetuate old inequalities and create new ones. The lunch counter sit- in movement shows that it can be done.