A History of the “Ins”: An Historian’s view on the Die-Ins

The recent explosion of Die-Ins across the nation and world may spark at least one, or several, future mass movements.  Directly forming out of them could possibly be another massive black movement.  This movement could focus on poverty, the racist drug war, or various other fields that were untouched by the earlier civil rights movement.  In this article I will not try and predict the future of where the current die-in movement will lead, but rather, I will focus on how historically mass movements influenced other mass movements that followed.  Moreover, I’ll relate how the various “Ins” – through nonviolent direct action – popularized these movements, which caused them to turn into mass movements.  Each “In” had to overcome unsympathetic elites and a majority of citizens, but, as Gandhi intended, this was achieved over time.

The “Ins” were a phenomenon created in the mid-20th century, heavily popularized by WWII conscientious objectors (COs). A small band of WWII COs were known as “radical pacifists,” meaning they objected to war and social injustices at home.  They were some of the first activists to apply nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.  The radical pacifists who used these methods were themselves influenced from the radical labor movement in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands rank-and-file workers and strikers shut down factories across the nation to win the right to unionize.

In 1936 the “sit-down” was created, a nonviolent protest in which the workers shut down factories by sitting on the floor and refusing to work.  Business owners were unable to forcibly remove the strikers without risk of destroying their own property. The sit-downs served as the best tool for the labor movement, not only by bringing about major victories, but also by creating solidarity among the workers who participated in them together for hours or days at a time.  Sit-downs spread rapidly, and in 1937 alone, nearly 400,000 workers took part in them.  By the end of WWII the movement had won victories in nearly every field of employment in the nation.

Emerging from the labor movement were the radical pacifists, who witnessed the possibility of average citizens bringing an entire country to a halt through nonviolent protests.  Not even the fiercest oppressor in the world could rule a country if the citizens practiced absolute noncooperation.  The radical pacifists’ transferred these methods to the anti-nuclear, civil rights and the peace movement.

Anti-Nuclear Movement

Following the McCarthy era when protests were at a record-low, the radical pacifists’ were at the head of the antinuclear movement.  In 1958, over 700 persons attended antinuclear protests, a new record for the movement and the largest turnout of demonstrators in the peace movement since the 1930s.  One of the main causes for the upsurge in activity came from the “sail-in” performed that same year.  The sail-in used nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to gain attention for the movement.  Five pacifists, including radical pacifist Jim Peck, were jailed in Honolulu for 60 days after attempting to sail the “Golden Rule” into the nuclear testing site in the Pacific.  The “Golden Rule” crew was arrested before making it into the testing area, but only a few weeks later another crew aboard the “Phoenix” successfully sailed into the testing zone, at which point the crew was arrested.

For the first time in two decades college students swarmed into peace organizations, and even formed their own peace groups such as the Student Peace Union (SPU).  Students never knew of the power they could have through nonviolent direct action up until then.  In October 1962, over 10,000 persons, mostly students from the SPU, demonstrated against nuclear weapons at the United Nations in New York City, marking the largest peace demonstration to have occurred there up to that time.  The antinuclear movement came to an end after successfully forcing the Kennedy Administration to pass the 1963 Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty.  That same year the peace organizations, with their all-time high memberships, turned their attention from the antinuclear movement to the anti-Vietnam movement.

Civil Rights

Borrowing the sit-downs from the 1930s labor movement, the student “sit-ins” emerged in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, marking the most popular civil rights campaign up to that time.  Black students sat at segregated counters and were heinously attacked by white bystanders and police.  They were beaten, spat upon, had cigarettes put out on them, and were jailed for long periods of time.  Following the methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, some students chose “jail-no-bail,” otherwise known as “jail-ins.”

The sit-ins continued for over a year and brought outstanding changes, even when the press became bored of the topic in the first few months.  In April, two months after the first four black students’ performed the sit-in in North Carolina, 50,000 participants nationwide were involved.  By the end of July, integration occurred in 27 southern cities.  Three weeks later changes had occurred in 90 towns in 11 Southern states.  By next spring the number of cities with noticeable changes in integration policies rose to 140.

Following the sit-ins, civil rights organizations formed new chapters across the country and were radicalized to keep up with the demand of continuing demonstrations.  Most significantly, directly emerging from the sit-ins (and wanting to preserve the militancy of them) was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the most militant civil rights group in the south.  For several years SNCC was responsible for bringing numerous victories for blacks in the south and successfully organizing southern blacks for the major voting rights campaigns.

By 1961 the civil rights movement was searching for a new type of sit-in campaign that could gain the attention of the nation.  This came on May 4, when nearly a dozen Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members set upon their journey to travel through the south on public interstate buses, in an attempt to enforce the new national ruling that declared segregated public busing unconstitutional.  This marked the beginning of the “bus-in,” more popularly known as the “Freedom Ride.”  CORE members purposely sat in an integrated manner, causing them to receive harsh remarks, several arrests, and even more beatings.  The first arrest occurred in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 8.  Black member Charles Person was arrested after applying the first “shoe-in,” when he tried to receive service in a shoe-shine chair, but had the police called on him instead.

The Freedom Riders on both buses were halted on May 14.  The first bus had its tires flattened by a white mob in Anniston, Alabama.  White segregationists shattered the windows of the bus and held the front door shut from the outside.  They then tossed a fire-bomb inside the bus, choking the Freedom Riders inside.  Less than a minute before the bomb went off, the Freedom Riders were able to get off the flaming bus, only to be beaten by the white mob as the police stood by and watched.  The explosion totaled the first bus, leaving only one Freedom Rider bus left.

The second bus of Freedom Riders was also halted that day in Birmingham, Alabama.  Freedom Rider Jim Peck headed this bus and was the first person, along with black Freedom Rider Charles Person, to step off the bus at the Birmingham Station, where the half-dozen Freedom Riders were greeted by a mob of hundreds of white segregationists.  Unbeknownst to the Freedom Riders, the all-white Birmingham police and the FBI informed the mob ahead of time that they would be given 15 minutes to do whatever they wanted to the Freedom Riders without any repercussions.  Among the infuriated white crowd were police officers and one FBI agent, who joined in on beating the Freedom Riders.  Amazingly no one was killed, but Jim Peck came the closest, needing 53 stitches in his head later that night.  When reporters asked Peck if he planned on continuing the Freedom Ride, he responded yes because “for the most severely beaten rider to quit could be interpreted as meaning that violence had triumphed over nonviolence.  It might convince the ultrasegregationists that by violence they could stop the Freedom Riders.”

The first Freedom Ride did come to an end, however, because not a single bus driver in the area was willing to continue driving the Freedom Riders.  The national publicity of the first Freedom Ride, however, caused thousands of activists from around the nation to form their own Freedom Rides.  By the end of the summer 328 Freedom Riders were jailed in Mississippi alone.  In total there were only 360 Freedom Riders arrested in the entire south.

Every southern politician denounced the Freedom Rides.  Former President Truman, who also denounced the sit-ins, said the Freedom Riders were “just troublemaking.”  One poll showed 61 percent of the population opposed the Freedom Rides, but this was after President Kennedy denounced them, and today we know a certain portion of the population takes the same view as the leaders of the Establishment.  President Kennedy even called for a “cooling-off” period.  On his speaking tour, Jim Peck heard one speaker say: “Our people have been cooling off for over one hundred years.  How about a cooling off period for the segregationist mobs?”

The Freedom Rides served as a large boost for the civil rights movement and directly influenced the passage of the new Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) regulations. On September 22, 1961, the ICC prohibited interstate carriers and terminal facilities from segregating.  On October 16, three major railroads serving the Deep South publicly announced the end of segregation in both trains and terminals.  New York City and New Jersey presented “Freedom Awards” to Peck and other Freedom Riders, declaring certain dates as “Freedom Ride Day.”  In history classes today they are admired for bringing about significant changes in civil rights.  It’s amazing that at one point the majority of the country denounced them, but that only goes to show that public opinion can, and must, be changed.

Following the Freedom Rides was the “Freedom Motorcade on Route 40” in Maryland.  This campaign aimed at ending restaurant discrimination along Route 40, especially at the Howard Johnson company stores, which was achieved through a Baltimore city ordinance.  The energy following the Freedom Motorcade led to the project “Freedom Highways,” which led to half the Howard Johnson stores desegregating in North Carolina, another 67 in Florida and a dozen more in various states in the upper south.


In March 1965, young college students who were active in the antinuclear and civil rights movement initiated the first “teach-in.”  The teach-in was influenced by the 1960 sit-ins, but were redesigned to match the academic lifestyle on college campuses.  Professors and students gave lectures at teach-ins on why the U.S. should not be in Vietnam, leading to long discussions and creating future demonstrations.  The teach-ins spread across the country even quicker than the sit-ins, radicalizing college students in a totally new way.

Only a month after the first teach-in, the first student rally against the war in Vietnam was held at the Washington Monument.  More than 20,000 students came out, making it the largest antiwar rally up to that time.  Students continued to be the majority of demonstrators at anti-Vietnam rallies the following years.  Nearly every year the demonstrations broke new historical records for any kind of protest in the U.S: in 1967, over 400,000 demonstrated in New York City; in 1969, over 650,000 in Washington and another 250,000 in San Francisco; and in 1971, 750,000 demonstrated in Washington and another 350,000 in San Francisco.  When the teach-ins began the students and professors were denounced as communists, and the majority of the population supported the war.  When the most unpopular war in all of U.S. history ended less than ten years later, polls showed the majority of the population not only opposed the war or getting involved in any future wars, but also reached new records of distrust toward the government.

The Die-In was most likely first applied in the anti-Vietnam protests in the early 1970s, but this was toward the end of the war, and the tactic would be used heavily in later movements.  For three weeks in November 1971, the “Daily Death Toll Demonstration” was conducted each day in front of the White House.  Demonstrators essentially performed die-ins (although they didn’t refer to them as such) by lying on the ground as if dead, while wearing a Vietnamese ribbon or hat saying “A Vietnamese peasant,” “A Vietnamese student,” etc.  The total of arrests for blocking the driveway of the White House resulted in 501 arrests, but most cases were suspended.  Similar actions were taken during the war, but the radical anti-Vietnam movement hardly needed the die-ins.

The Second Anti-Nuclear Movement

The “Die-In” was not popularized until the 1970s, but was no doubt more dramatic than all of its predecessors.  It was hardly used in any of the major Vietnam demonstrations , but, instead, was popularized during the second major antinuclear movement that occurred roughly between 1975 and 1982.  The Die-ins became more popular as the antinuclear movement grew.

By 1978 the movement was spread nationwide.  On May 27, nearly 20,000 persons protested at the UN in New York, one of the largest nuclear disarmament protests in over a decade.  The high-point of the rally was when several thousand demonstrators performed a die-in for 15 minutes.  Only a few months later on August 9, Hiroshima Day, die-ins were conducted in New York City; Boston; Portland, Oregon; New Haven, Conn.; and Rocky Flats, Colorado.

The Rocky Flats die-in was performed outside the Rocky Flats Power Plant, where the finishing touches of 3 to 10 nuclear heads were performed daily.  The die-in occurred just inside the plant’s west gate because studies showed there had been a greater incidence of cancer on the downwind side than the other three sides.  This was reaffirmed prior to the die-in at a conference where a demonstrator requested the die-in be performed at the west gate, which prompted the power plant’s representative to state: “No, that would be too dangerous.”  Realizing his mistake, he quickly added: “I don’t want to be quoted on that: I was speaking off the record.”  A total of 79 persons took part in the die-in at Rocky Flats, including Jim Peck, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Pentagon Papers star Daniel Ellsberg.  Ellsberg and Ginsberg were immediately arrested to prevent the die-in from gaining publicity, but the rest remained on the ground for exactly 28 minutes.

The die-ins continued to be performed for the next few years, but reduced in the 1980s.  Yet they served a major purpose by gaining national publicity for the movement.  On June 12, 1982, in the single largest demonstration of all time, one million persons protested in New York City against the nuclear policies of the Reagan Administration.  Two days later over 1,600 persons were arrested for blocking the UN building; many performed sit-ins, but some felt it necessary to perform die-ins.


In conclusion, the die-in spawned from a long-list of predecessors from various movements.  The die-ins, as well as sit-ins and teach-ins, didn’t die along with the movement that created them, but were redesigned to match future movements.  The die-in has a special place in the peace movement because it is a form of protest against any type of death considered unjust.  This was why it could be applied during the Iraq war in the early 2000s, as well as by anti-abortion activists.

Another example was the anti-capital punishment movement in the late 1970s, when the death penalty for prisoners was re-introduced.  In 1979, 24 persons, including Jim Peck, protested across the street from the Supreme Court by pretending to be killed in an electric chair.  After all 24 acted this out, their bodies were carried across the street and placed on the steps of the Supreme court in a dramatic die-in.Props are always recommended in nonviolent protests.  In addition to an “electric chair”, a popular prop with the die-ins are fake “coffins.”  The outline of a coffin is simple to make for any activist, and it can be carried in a parade and then put on the ground during a die-in.  This represents death equally as much as a die-in can.

Today the die-ins are being carried out across the nation and world.  Just as with the past Ins, they are performed mainly by students and young people.  They are also denounced by politicians and other elites they are meant to challenge.  The sit-downs, sail-ins, sit-ins, bus-ins, shoe-in, teach-ins and die-ins of the past didn’t always bring results immediately.  Some took longer than others.  Yet they all gained national attention, and even though politicians and elites continuously denounced them, eventually, through the sympathy created by dedicated nonviolent activists, the majority of the nation sided with the demonstrators, resulting in some form of national policy that changes our society for the better.

The die-ins may be the first phase in the movement or the last, but its influence on other movements has already been felt.  Organizations that haven’t conducted demonstrations in years, are now performing them on a weekly basis.  Historians and writers are always influenced by their times, and I’m no different.  I’ve already attended five die-ins.  Just as the sit-downs influenced the sit-ins, and the sit-ins influenced the teach-ins; now I, too, have been influenced by the die-ins, and coined the “High-In.”  The high-in is simply the die-in, but people will smoke while on the ground.  The marijuana movement in NJ can expect to see this applied soon.  This tactic becomes more powerful when conducted in an area where all smoking is prohibited, such as at certain government buildings where protests are most ideal.

The current die-ins must continue if change is expected.  If they are expected to bring results, however, nonviolent actions must continue to be performed to apply pressure on politicians who will not act out of their own goodwill.  This may seem daunting for any activist, but the greatest victories are always achieved by the Underdogs.


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