[The student lunch-counter sit-ins that swept through the South in 1960 sparked a storm of controversy. This speech by Casey Hayden as part of an NSA panel on the sit-ins led to a strong and important resolution of support by the NSA.]
I understand we on this panel are to represent different shades of opinion on the sit-ins.
While I may fall within a certain shade of opinion, I speak neither for the sit-inners nor the Southern white, but only for myself. I find the sit-in question to be essentially an ethical question, not a question of expediency or emotion. I do not mean this to be abstract, for an ethical question means a personal decision. None of you can make this decision for me, nor would I attempt to make it for any of you.
Now an ethical question is both utterly simple and confusingly complex. On this particular question, I only hope we do not lose its essential simplicity in the complexity. I would touch on the first point first — its simplicity. When an individual human being is not allowed by the legal system and the social mores of his community to be a human being, does he have the right to peaceably protest? Yes. No "buts," just "Yes." Perhaps in this situation, protest is the only way to maintain his humanity.
I feel sure that everyone concurs with the statement I have just made. However, we may say this and add "but," and the complexities arise. First, the fear of violence. I understand this. We certainly feared violence in Austin after hearing of Marshall. But should a person who does not strike back be blamed because he is struck? I simply fail to understand why, if the presence of Negro students sitting quietly or white and Negro students sitting together is so infuriating to a mob that they resort to violence, the students should be blamed for the sickness of the mob.
Another complexity may be that you agree with this, but simply do not think the sit-ins are wise. Well, wise in terms of what? The amount of discomfort caused? I do not choose to live my life in terms of comfort. Or perhaps unwise because it will cause the segregationists to harden in their attitudes? Here I can only say that I do feel some pity for the segregationists and realize it will be difficult to accept the changes that must come. But I am not free as long as he keeps me from going where I please with whom I please, and I do not think that fear of him should keep me and others from trying to right the wrong for which he stands.
Still further, we may raise the question of the relation of protest and the law. In the first place, most of the laws applied are old laws obviously revived to enforce the segregationist mores of a community. Secondly, I believe the patently discriminatory laws are illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment.
However, students are breaking state laws. As I see it, a person suffering under an unjust law has several choices. He can do nothing. We have never advocated this in a democracy. He can use legal means. This has been done and will be done. However, if he sees the slowness of the legal means and realizes he is a human being now, and the law is unjust now, he has other choices. He can revolt. I think we should all be proud and glad that this has not been the course of the Southern Negro.
Or he can protest actively, as Southern students have chosen to do, and he must take the consequences. I do not see the law as immutable, but rather as an agreed-upon pattern for relations between people. If the pattern is unjust or a person doesn't agree with the relations, a person must at times choose to do the right rather than the legal. I do not consider this anarchy, but responsibility.
But the things I have been discussing I discuss only in order to converse with the other panelists. It seems to me now that these questions disturbed me because I'm so used to giving lip service to an ideal. We would all quote the slogan that segregation is wrong, but we would condemn the method used to bring people's attention to its wrongness. An ideal can be transmuted into action ... a just decision can become a reality in students walking and sitting and acting together.
I cannot say to a person who suffers injustice, "Wait." Perhaps you can. I can't. And having decided that I cannot urge caution, I must stand with him.
If I had known that not a single lunch counter would open as a result of my action, I could not have done differently than I did. I am thankful for the sit-ins if for no other reason than that they provided me with the opportunity for making a slogan into a reality by making a decision an action. It seems to me that this is what life is all about. While I would hope that the NSA Congress will pass a strong sit-in resolution, I am more concerned that all of us, Negro and white, realize the possibility of becoming less inhuman humans through commitment and action with all their frightening complexities.
When Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay taxes to a government which supported slavery, Emerson went to visit him. "Henry David," said Emerson, "what are you doing in there?" Thoreau looked at him and replied, "Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?"
What are you doing out there?
Copyright © Casey Hayden, 1960.
See Civil Rights Movement History 1960 for background & more information.
See also Sit-Ins of 1960-61 for related documents
See also Sit-ins for related web links.