Virginia dismisses charges against 5 black men for 1939 sit-in protest

Five African American men were arrested on Aug. 21, 1939 for staging a sit-in demanding equal access to the Alexandria Library. On Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, those charges were finally dropped. (Courtesy Alexandria Library)

On Aug. 21, 1939, five African American men were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after staging a sit-in at a whites-only Alexandria public library, demanding equal access to community resources.

On Friday, the charges against them were finally dropped.

The men — William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker — were each charged after asking to register for library cards and sitting down to read books after being refused.

Staff at the Alexandria Library recently discovered that the judge originally assigned to the case never made a ruling and the charges were still technically outstanding.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter asked the Alexandria circuit court to dismiss them in recognition of constitutional rights.

The court found that the men were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech and to petition the government to alter the established policy of sanctioned segregation at the time of their arrest,” and that “sitting peacefully in a library reading books … was not in any fashion disorderly or likely to cause acts of violence.”

Mayor Justin Wilson applauded the action by the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Circuit Court to “right an important part of the wrong that occurred 80 years ago,” said Wilson.

On Monday, the mayor will present the court’s order to descendants of the five men during a free panel discussion at the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

There will also be a presentation of a proclamation, the unveiling of new commemorative posters, and light refreshments.

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