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Opinion | Remembering Alabama’s first sit-in demonstration

On February 25, 1960, approximately 32 Alabama State College students staged the state’s first sit-in demonstration when a number of them occupied the cafeteria at the Montgomery County Courthouse for one hour.  For their insurgence, the Alabama State Board of Education expelled nine sit-in participants and placed twenty others on probation.  Six of the nine subsequently sued the College and State for violation of their due process rights in St. John Dixon v. The Alabama State Board of Education,186 F.Supp 945; 294 F. 2d 150 (1960).  This case was argued by Fred Gray, Sr. with the assistance of attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.  Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. heard the case and ruled in favor of the State.  Johnson’s ruling was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.  St. John Dixon is now regarded as a landmark decision.

This month, Alabama State University is having a conference to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Montgomery County Courthouse sit-in.  But the conference will also focus on the aftermath of that student protest such as the purging of so-called disloyal faculty members.  On Monday, February 24, 2020, Attorney Fred Gray, Sr. will give the keynote that morning, and in the afternoon, the conference will feature the five living participants from the 1960 sit-in; namely, Mr. Joseph Peterson, Mr. Cornelius Benson, Mr. James McFadden, Dr. Joe Reed, and Mr. St. John Dixon.  The latter sought admission to San Jose State College in his home state of California, but the College denied his admission because Dixon was “dishonorably expelled” from Alabama State College.  Rumor had it that the presidents of California’s public colleges made a secret pact to not admit any Black student expelled from a school in the South for a sit-in demonstration.

On Wednesday morning, February 26, 2020, the conference will hear from a panel on the need for the State to reconcile this history.  This panel will have Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama State Superintendent of Education, Steven Reed, Mayor of Montgomery, Elton Dean, Sr., Chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, Nichelle Nix, Office of Governor Kay Ivey, an administrator of Alabama State University, and Fr. Manuel Williams, Resurrection Catholic Church.

Gov. John Patterson ordered the expulsion of the nine Alabama State College students without a hearing.  And while the State Board of Education expressed contrition for its decision in March 1960, Gov. John Patterson has not, nor has any subsequent Alabama governor.  As Dr. King opined at Holt Street Baptist Church on December 5,1955, “The hallmark of the Constitution is the right to protest for rights.”

Or, as the “Statement by the Students of Alabama State College After Nine Students were expelled…” asked, ‘Are we being punished because we believe in the Declaration of Independence … and the U. S. Supreme Court declaration that all men…should have equal rights and full and free access to public services?  If we are punished because of these beliefs, then we are guilty, for we do believe in democracy, justice and equality.  Our textbooks have taught us this.  Our education has prepared us for citizenship. If we are not allowed to function as citizens, then it is right to expel us from school…’

 

Written By

DIG DEEPER

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