Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s

ISBN : 9780190699048

Risa L. Goluboff
482 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Oct 2017
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In 1950s America, it was remarkably easy for police to arrest almost anyone for almost any reason. The criminal justice system-and especially the age-old law of vagrancy-played a key role not only in maintaining safety and order but also in enforcing conventional standards of morality and propriety. A person could be arrested for sporting a beard, making a speech, or working too little. Yet by the end of the 1960s, vagrancy laws were discredited and American society was fundamentally transformed. What happened? In Vagrant Nation, Risa Goluboff provides a groundbreaking account of this transformation. By reading into the history of the 1960s through the lens of vagrancy laws, Goluboff shows how constitutional challenges to long-standing police practices were at the center of the multiple movements that made "the 1960s." Vagrancy laws were so broad and flexible that they made it possible for the police to arrest anyone out of place in any way: Beats and hippies; Communists and Vietnam War protestors; racial minorities, civil rights activists, and interracial couples; prostitutes, single women, and gay men, lesbians, and other sexual minorities. As hundreds of these "vagrants" and their lawyers claimed that vagrancy laws were unconstitutional, the laws became a flashpoint for debates about radically different visions of order and freedom. In Goluboff's compelling portrayal, the legal campaign against vagrancy laws becomes a sweeping legal and social history of the 1960s. Touching on movements advocating civil rights, peace, gay rights, welfare rights, and cultural revolution, Vagrant Nation provides insight relevant to this battle, as well as the battle over the legacy of the 1960s' transformations themselves.


1. From the Soapbox to the Courthouse
2. The Vagrancy Law Education of Ernest Besig
3. Shuffling Sam Thompson and the Liberty End Cafe
4. For Integration? You're a Vagrant
5. Morals Are Flexible from One Generation . . . to Another
6. The Most Significant Criminal Case of the Year
7. Hippies, Hippie Lawyers, and the Challenge of Nonconformity
8. The Beginning of the End of Vagrancy Laws
9. Vagrancy Is No Crime

About the author: 

Risa Goluboff is the Dean of the University of Virginia School of Law and the Arnold H. Leon Professor of Law Professor of History. She is also the author of The Lost Promise of Civil Rights.

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