Among the many important cases future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued in front of the nation’s High Court, “Garner v. Louisiana” stands out.
On December 11, 1961, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that peaceful “sit-in” protesters could not be convicted under the state’s “disturbing the peace” law.
Inspired by the acts of Black students in Greensboro, N.C. in February 1960, a group of Southern University students staged peaceful sit-in protests around Louisiana, most notably at Sitman’s Drug Store in Baton Rouge. The students were asked to leave, which they refused to do and they were arrested for potentially causing alarm and for disturbing the peace.
The NAACP stepped in to defend the students, with President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department filing a legal brief in support of the students. The justices ruled 9-0 that the students did not violate any law and were protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the 16 students were all expelled for their roles in the protests.
In 2004, all 16 students were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature later passed a resolution to honor the group. Many historians view “Garner v. Louisiana” as one of the pivotal cases ahead of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.