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Civil rights activism of the libertarian kind

Glenn Reynolds posted this link to an almost forgotten but pivotal story of the early civil rights movement. A group of young men opened an entire chain of stores to black americans by patience and nonviolence, and more notably without disrespect of private property or sobbing to mama government to kiss and make better.

They broke no laws. They neither committed nor threatened to initiate any violence. They just sat at a counter day after day, waiting to be served until:

On August 11, while the early arrivals were sitting at the counter waiting for their friends to show, a white man around 40 walked in and looked at them for several minutes. Then he looked at the store manager, and said, simply, “Serve them. I’m losing too much money.” He then walked back out. That man was the owner of the Dockum drug store chain.

The owner then gave the same orders to all of his other stores.

These people deserve to be better known than they are.

We should also remember the owner of the chain for being a businessman and a reasonable human being who did the right thing in a time and a place where ideologic racists abounded.

25 comments to Civil rights activism of the libertarian kind

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Well said, and well noted.

    The point needs to be driven home again and again: that free markets and the insatiable drive to make profits are some of the best weapons against bigotry in all its forms. I take it as an enormous compliment to classical liberalism that some of its greatest enemies are people who would happily bring back such odious laws had they the chance.

  • Jso

    They asked for help and support from the national NAACP, but the national organization refused to endorse or even acknowledge their actions. The confrontational tactic was against NAACP policy.

    Yea what an incredibly radical idea.

  • Charles

    A similar ending of segregation happened in Las Vegas when the mafia was shown just how much money they weren’t making by keeping black people out of the casinos. One day black people aren’t allowed in, the next they are… all without any formal announcement or phase in period.

    It’s interesting in that with all the negative connotations, pure greed is not racist.

    Hell, even greedy pirates had fully integrated hundreds of years before leftist academics could even think up of the concept of integration.

  • D Anghelone

    …without disrespect of private property…

    Obviously false.

    That article is something for libertarians to ponder, not claim.

  • Pa Annoyed

    Nice story, but of limited applicability. It can work if you’ve already made your case, people don’t feel very strongly about the issue, and if the bigots will let you.

    Imagine Chinese students peacefully sitting and waiting for freedom in Tianamen square. Imagine Christians patiently praying out in the open on the outskirts of Mecca because they have no Church to pray in. Imagine paedophiles patiently waiting outside schools. It doesn’t work unless the people it is supposed to work on let it. And while Capitalism is a fine motivator, I don’t think offering to pay would help, in the above examples.

    As you say, they are certainly people worthy of being remembered, but I wouldn’t make too much of the methods they were able to use.

  • PA Annoyed,

    Not true: the problem here is not that it is of limited applicability, it is that it presupposes that there is a VIGOROUS FREE PRESS.

    If we assume that, we can now look at your examples:
    Christians outside Mecca praying peacefully, offering no obstruction and demanding no claim rights and being beaten by the bigots. And coming back the next day, peacefully, and being beaten again. And again.

    With a free press, showing that no resistance is offered, the rest of world wouldn’t stand for it for very long. Absent it and, yes, you are right.

    The paedophile comparison, though, is just sh*te. A paedophile wishes to do violence against a child. That is not something that a libertarian is prepared to accept.

    You also miss the “offering to pay point”: of course the protestors were offering to pay – not to do so would to be assume that they were blackmailing the owner to get them to go away. The whole point here is that by waiting patiently, the silent protestors are showing the BIGOTS the effects of their own choices. If the bigots, by dint of their own bigotry, do not wish to be in the store, that is their choice – but it is the impact on the store owner’s profits of the LACK OF THE BIGOT’s MONEY that is the driver.

    Come along.

  • ACtually, the rest of the story makes good reading, because it is a salutory reminder that organisations that purport to be representing a cause can be out of step with its membership:

    “Their actions inspired others, and the sit-in movement spread to Oklahoma City. By the middle of 1959, the national NAACP was losing disaffected members for refusing to endorse the scattered but spreading sit-in protests, gave in, and sponsored the Greensboro sit-ins.”

    The question is, was the NAACP driven by the free market capitalist requirement to keep its members or by the – apparently loftier – ideal of democracy? Answers on a postcard…

  • Gilbert Brahms

    I was very young when the lunch counter episode occurred. I remember feeling admiration for the demonstrators and feeling that the situation resolved without stirring either resentment or a sense that somebody had been taken advantage of. The press of the time was supportive (at least outside the South). There was no rancor. That came later, after M.L.King was killed and the “black power” criminals took over and pulled the power of the federal government into states and localities. Soon came the overreaching mailed fist in the form of interference with freedom of association and the free market, forced bussing, affirmative affronts to the equal protection clause. The whole process showed the tyrant hiding behind the “liberal” reformer, who, over the decades, became ever more unrestrained.

  • J

    A paedophile wishes to do violence against a child

    That’s not true. Some might wish to, some might not. It’s no truer to say that racists wish to do violence against members of other races than their own. One can be racists and peaceful, and one can be a paedophile and peaceful.

    It ought, in one sense, to be possible to profess sexual attraction to children and (assuming you don’t violate anyone’s rights in pursuit of that), to be treated as fairly as those who profess sexual attraction to members of the same sex, for instance.

    Certainly a paedophile would have to be abstinent, but that’s not so hard to imagine.

    I think the paedophile example is a good one. Such peaceful protests are great so long as not too many people hate you….

  • He’s got you there Perry. Expressing racist ideas is not the same as committing racist actions. Admitting to a predeliction for young boys is not the same as… (well you get the idea). Its a distinction which we should hold dear to if we are not to relent to the mob.

  • The actual counter itself is on display in one of the museums in Washington D.C.

  • He’s got you there Perry. Expressing racist ideas is not the same as committing racist actions.


  • Johnathan Pearce

    I must admit I was baffled by Mandrill’s comment. WTF?

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    Assuming the store was private property and the owner asked them to leave (whatever his reasons), don’t his property rights trump the protestors rights? He did after all try to get them to leave, and both sides did invoke the threat of violence when mobs of white thugs and local black elders turned up on the scene, and the cops patently refused to uphold the owner’s propoerty rights.

    Were they not denying the store owner’s rights to serve whom ever he wanted? By sitting in they were preventing other (welcome) customers from being served. A successful protest, but not one upholding the principle of property rights and freedom of association.

    I can’t deny the idiocy of of the store owner with his discriminatory policies, or that the principle of self-interest taking over his decision making, but this is a case of expediency, not peaceful, non-rights infringing, “libertarian” protest. This is just some good stuff that happened that has nothing to do with my political philosophy. A retrospective feel good story, if you have.

    A strictly libertarian protest would have to find a way to demonstrate the loss of profits with infringing on the owner’s property rights. Sit down as they like, but leave when asked, and don’t attempt unlawful entry. Invoking the mob, as both sides did, does not hold true to libertarian principles of non-violence.

  • guy herbert

    A paedophile wishes to do violence against a child.

    Not necessarily.

    The very invention of the term “paedophile,” was an attempt by those who believed their desires could be expressed non-coercively and were a legitimate form of love for children, to express that in a non-pejorative label. That was a branding disaster, although it wouldn’t normally be seen that way. Most people are too blinded by horror to make the distinctions necessary to understand what they were trying to do. So the result has been quite the opposite: to class non-coercive actions and thoughts, indirectly coercive actions – ‘seduction’ – founded on mistake about another person’s understanding, and genuinely abusive but non-violent (and possibly negligibly harmful) actions, with those of intentionally or heedlessly violent rapists. To say “a paedophile wishes to do violence” is a category mistake brought on by a combination of (self-)labelling and moral panic.

    It wasn’t just a disaster for paedophiles, though. It has also poisoned our society. It has resulted in the official pseudo-abolition of adolescent sexuality, and created a weird situation where unsupervised relationships of any kind between children and adults are threatened. See “Miss Riding Hood? Your permit please” and this article by Stuart Waiton.

  • nic

    Good point, Guy. I think the confusion is that there are quite reasonable grounds for making all forms of paedophilia illegal (such as the dramatic likelihood of an abuse of a position of power and of some form of coercion taking place) but the cultural and social abhorrence of it manages to conflate violent sexual attack of children and the less coercive forms together, when one crime is demonstrably much worse than the other.

  • The lunch counter was private property, the protesters were trespassing, and thus initiated coercion. The justice of their cause does not negate that.

    Pedophilia is always coercion (borderline cases of mid to late teens under 18 notwithstanding). A child cannot consent because he does not yet have the rational faculty to make such a decision. Failing to say no, or even mouthing the word “yes” does not make for rational consent. Guy, you’re right that the current hysteria has cast suspicion on any relationship between non-parental adults and children, including non sexual relationships that are vitally important to a childs’s growth and formation into an adult – but that does not change the nature of sexual relations with a child. It just means that people want to be relieved of the burden of thinking, and to be given a black-box formula into which they can plug facts and have their decisions made for them.

    In both cases. the absence of actual physical violence does not have any bearing on whether the action is coercive and forcible. And coercion can be legitimately described as a form of moral violence.

  • Brendan,

    “Assuming the store was private property and the owner asked them to leave (whatever his reasons), don’t his property rights trump the protestors rights?”
    He would indeed have the right to do so, and his property rights do indeed trump theirs. I’m not sure that this is an issue though as, in the first instance, the store did not ask them to leave.

    “Were they not denying the store owner’s rights to serve whom ever he wanted? “ No. He chose not to serve them.

    “By sitting in they were preventing other (welcome) customers from being served.”
    No: Absolutely not. There was no forcible prevention for other customers. That their presence was distasteful to bigots is of no consequence. It is NOT coercion. I agree that the involvement of various mobs on either side detracts from the story, but you cannot make a coercion claim on the act of sitting in itself.


    I think there may be an element of nit-picking going on here: I think PA Annoyed could have been clearer if he genuinely intended the word “paedophile” to have the entirely innocent context that you suggest.

    “It has also poisoned our society. It has resulted in the official pseudo-abolition of adolescent sexuality, and created a weird situation where unsupervised relationships of any kind between children and adults are threatened. “
    But you still wouldn’t let your children get picked up by any random adult stranger, which is the very clear inference of a “paedophile outside the school gates”. There is a rather large gap between that and the demonisation of school teachers, well known and identifiable to parents and children etc etc.

    I agree that that is indeed a poisoning of society – that a pre-existing bond of trust is not apparently to be trusted, but that is not what is being discussed here.


  • Brendan Halfweeg

    I’m not sure that this is an issue though as, in the first instance, the store did not ask them to leave.


    From the story:

    On one occasion three police officers tried to coerce and intimidate the teenagers to leave, and succeeded. But they came back, and the police did not return. They were breaking no law, only a store policy, and the store was not willing to challenge them directly.

    I suppose the police took upon themselves to remove the youths? This element of the story suggests that the owner did in fact seek to get them to leave, but that the police were unwilling to step in directly more than once.

    Is your argument that the owner forfeited his property rights by not enforcing them? Perhaps this is true, but trespassing in full view of the owner without incurring his wrath is still trespassing and it would be within the owner’s rights to ask you to leave.

    No: Absolutely not. There was no forcible prevention for other customers.

    They were prevented from being served by individuals who were occupying seats. This is similar to an able bodied person parking in a handicap bay, but the carpark owner not bothering to enforce his own rules. Preventing access in contrary to the owner’s rules is a violation of implied contract that you agree to upon entry to the store or the carpark. It is weakened by the non-enforcement, but the principle is the same.

    As far as protests go, though, this does seem to be more in the faith of a libertarian philosophy.

  • Pa Annoyed

    I apologise about dropping the topic in without being clear. I often use paedophilia as a sort of moral test case – it is easy enough to criticise the bigotry of others, but paedophilia arouses the same response in our culture that homosexuality, blasphemy, or being black have done in others. Given such feelings, how would I feel about them being outweighed by other considerations? The case doesn’t actually fit the same libertarian mould, for the reasons you give, but it is the feelings it arouses that are important. If you hadn’t been able to reason your way round to rejecting it, how would you feel about some libertarians telling you you had to accept it? It is not necessarily to suggest that I consider such bigotry unjustified, but every now and then I do like to throw a spanner in the works of people’s comfortable assumptions. To make you think, if only for a moment.

    In this case, it was also to make the point again that simply protesting peacefully is not sufficient to get your way, if your case does not have at least some grudging support from your oppressors. It was not their method of protest that mattered, but the perceived justice of their case. The young black men deserve praise, certainly, but the people who deserve the greatest praise are the bigots who changed their minds.
    They made it all possible by doing one of the hardest things there is to do: to admit that you were wrong.

    Having said all that, I’m inclined to agree with the other points made. Paedophiles cannot help the way they are, and I suspect many live in torment because of it. They get little support or treatment, if indeed it can be treated (homosexuals had to put up with ‘treatment’ for decades), and the recent climate has turned into a regular witch hunt. Children, like anyone else, need to be protected, but things have gone a leetle bit over the top.

    On other points…
    I disagree that a free press would save the Christian worshippers. Many are at this very moment being attacked, persecuted, and even killed for doing far less than what I suggested. Nobody has done a thing. Nobody will. It’s not news. “There’s nothing I can do. It would cost me dearly to intervene, and it’s none of my business. I’ll just walk along the other side of the street here.”
    Libertarians mutter darkly about “what they’d do” if the government ever went nuts and became a police state. – Go visit Pakistan and take a good look at the consequences of the Hudood ordinances, and then watch yourself to see what you do.

    “Come home”, right? “Nothing I can do”, right? Well, now you know exactly what you’d do if George or Tone declared themselves Dictator for Life and opened themselves up some spiffy new prisons.
    (Kudos to anyone who actually said “Buy a big gun and go completely Arnie in a Madrassa” but you’re in the minority. And I think you’re probably lying, but never mind.)

    On another point, I disagree that children are unable to give informed consent because they are not rational. That is exactly the argument they gave for not giving women the vote. I think it was tried with blacks, too. Many children are quite capable of understanding, and many adults never do learn, and it is not the real reason in any case. Unless you propose that people pass an exam before acquiring their full rights and responsibilites, please don’t tell me you are witholding them from people because they are irrational. Judged how?!
    And especially don’t tell me that you suddenly become rational about sex at 16 or 18, or 9 or whatever the legal age of consent is where you live. We went through all that on the recent abortion debate.

    Laws can’t cope with greys and idiots get to vote; but that doesn’t make it right. People should be judged as individuals, and in reality there are no sharp borders anywhere.

  • harryr

    The issue was not that the store owner had a private objection to serving black americans, and thus the sit in violated his private property rights. Segregation was state law enforced by cops and judges, irrespective of the private preferences of white or black citizens. Futhermore a lunch counter though private property functions as a public space. In other words a lunch counter is not a private residence, You can chuck a stranger out of your home without having to account for it to anyone. To exclude someone from a business that serves customers on the premises, usually requires a reason that is acceptable to actual or potential customers. The same with the Montgomery bus boycott, city owned buses were required by law to practice segregation, white bus drivers who did not enfore that law ran a theoretical risk of arrest.

  • Brendan Halfweeg

    You can chuck a stranger out of your home without having to account for it to anyone. To exclude someone from a business that serves customers on the premises, usually requires a reason that is acceptable to actual or potential customers.

    No it doesn’t. Private property rights trump “public” rights in absolutely all cases and it is only through state coercion that these property rights are infringed. Access to private property may be revoked by the owner at any time, to anyone for any reason. Forcing an owner to act or not act on his own regulations is still coercion. Of course it is bad business to upset existing customers, but no said you had the right to stay in business.

    Is there not a parallel to entering a kosha restaurant and ordering pork, then refusing to leave until you get served pork? There is no sign on a kosha restaurant that says they don’t serve pork, only an implied acceptance by potential customers that they won’t get served bacon if they ask for it. Think about all the potential pork loving customers that can’t get served and all the business a Jewish dinner is losing by not catering to their customer’s wishes?

  • nic

    “Laws can’t cope with greys and idiots get to vote; but that doesn’t make it right. People should be judged as individuals, and in reality there are no sharp borders anywhere.”

    I think that is a very good argument for judicial discretion, especially when reviewing the circumstances of relationships. But in the end, if you need to draw some lines that people should be aware not to cross, then sexual relations with children (however we define “children”) is one of them. The anology with women and black people voting doesn’t quite hold. Those laws treated women as if they were children, and should be rightfully condemned. But you cannot condemn a law for treating children as children! (assuming we have the right model of what children are capable of processing)

    Of course, paedophilia is much harder to consistently condemn in a more collectivist culture (Ancient Greece, specifically Sparta being the archetype example), but where we are basing a society on individual choice, the extent of consent becomes the crux of many legal points. Hence, why children present one of the hardest cases for this society.

  • Pa Annoyed

    I can’t condemn a law for treating children as children, I could condemn a law that specified that the way to treat children was to withdraw their rights and responsibilities for spurious reasons.

    A libertarian will justify the restriction of rights only on the basis of the harm it does to others. If having sex with someone harms them then it should be illegal – whether they’re 9 or 99. Now it may well be a statistical fact that most children are such that sex would harm them, so sex with those children ought to be illegal – but this should not be on the spurious grounds of age or rationality, but on an individual judgement of the harm it would do/has done.

    These limits are bounded by the principle of informed consent, by which someone can consent to be harmed or potentially harmed, understanding the consequences. That last bit is tricky. It is added so that people cannot be tricked into agreeing to something, but it is rare that people’s understanding is probed too deeply. However, if it applies at all, it must apply as much to children as adults. You can argue that many particular children don’t understand and that might turn out to be most of them, but you can’t argue that this can be assumed of all children below a certain age without presenting evidence. And if you argue it of children then you must make the case for adults too.

    Adults do not have to show they are rational or responsible before having sex, (or drinking, or voting, or smoking) so society clearly puts people’s freedom ahead of protecting them from themselves. (So far.) Does the barkeeper question their customers on the symtoms of cirrhosis before serving them? No. (And I doubt most people would be able to answer if they did.) So clearly the standard is set pretty low for ‘informed’. Why is an irrational/uninformed child different to an irrational/uninformed adult?

    Adults and children should only be treated differently to the extent that they are different, and where those differences are relevant on libertarian grounds. That’s hard to do, so the law draws a line and accepts the injustice. It’s probably the best option available, but it’s still a double standard.

  • Midwesterner

    Pa Annoyed,

    It’s probably the best option available, but it’s still a double standard.

    Mandrill and I had a discussion of intellectual property over on his blog a week or two ago. I made/make the case that this problem also applies to IP.

    In the case of IP, we have a clear principle available but that it is difficult if not impossible to apply fairly. The principled length of IP protection should be until somebody else would have thought of it. But we can’t know when that is. So what we do is make a best estimated average that will apply in each category of IP and use it for a legal standard. Probably the worst option except for all of the others.

    I think this is also what happens with intellectual independence. We (that is society-cringe) make our best guess at what age a majority of persons would pass a minimum threshold of accountability and then set that as a legal standard.

    You right, it is a double standard. But the only alternative I can see is to administer tests and only grant full discretionary independence to those who pass. Certainly not a power I would give to government in this progressively unlimited democracy we live in. Once a faction got power, they would only grant freedom and franchise to members of their own faction.