“The Sit-in Movement of 1960” Review

Oppenheimer, Martin. The Sit-in Movement of 1960. Edited by David J. Garrow. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1989.

Dr. Martin Oppenheimer initially wrote The Sit-in Movement of 1960 as his doctoral dissertation. The research became so heavily used that the text was included in the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement volumes edited by David J. Garrow. In this text, Oppenheimer, a sociologist, argued that the 1960 sit-ins marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and that the sit-ins were organized, successfully implemented by youth, and that their involvement led to participation and leadership in future movements (p. 1). The Sit-in Movement of 1960 remains a key work in understanding youth involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the impact of the sit-ins in the South on the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement.

Four parts create the foundation of Oppenheimer’s argument. First, a general examination of social movements and hypotheses on social movements historically reoccurring (pp. 7-9). Second, he applied these hypotheses to the 1960 sit-ins (p. 19). Third, he explained social conflict and made further hypotheses, these on social conflict resolution from intergroup and intragroup aspects (pp. 102-117). Fourth, he applied these hypotheses to the various sit-ins (pp. 117-176). This methodology is a strength because he approached the sit-ins from a social perspective which allowed him to answer why sit-ins occur, why the 1960 sit-ins launched the Civil Rights Movement, what the dynamics of the groups were, how students impacted their success, and how the sit-ins influenced further activism.

The book is organized by introduction, student movements, intergroup conflict by sit-in location, and a conclusion (p. vii). The strength of the 1989 version of Oppenheimer’s text lies in his preface. He discussed new texts that study both social movements and the Civil Rights Movement while adding that the field needed to continue to expand its study of political power structures during the Civil Rights Movement (pp. xiii-xvi). Within the original text, Oppenheimer’s book stood apart from other books on Civil Rights Movement due to the detailed analysis of ten specific sit-ins and the inclusion of relevant statistics. These charts analyzed the demographics of those communities, the groups participating in the sit-ins, and the frequency of the sit-ins, but none of the charts clarified the age of the students that organized or participated in the sit-ins.

Like most texts on the Civil Rights Movement, if there is an acknowledgment of youth involvement in the protests, the ages of those involved require further research. Oppenheimer provided many names and organizations to allow further research for clarification on whether the participants were in grade school or college. However, this factor and the lack of firsthand accounts of the sit-ins does depersonalize the event and make the text neutral on the issues of the book’s subject. Though neutrality does not constitute a weakness, researchers will need to use the text as a launching point for firsthand accounts of the ten sit-ins analyzed in the text.

In summary, Oppenheimer’s The Sit-in Movement of 1960 provided an in-depth analysis of sit-ins from the perspective of youth involvement but lacked the voice of the students due to the methodology of focusing largely on data and less on personal accounts of the sit-ins. The book remains an excellent starting point for understanding the causes and effects of social structures on the success of the 1960 sit-ins in launching the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, the extensive footnotes, bibliography, and sources added in the preface provide a rabbit hole of names, events, and data for further research and the charts should be used to broaden analyses of the populations of both the protesters and the communities in which the protests occurred.