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

Date & Time

March 15, 2016 @ 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm


Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
233 4th Street, NW
Charlottesville, VA



Risa Goluboff, author of Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s, discusses her important new study of constitutional law and civil rights in this Engaging the Mind Public Lecture Series presentation, offered by UVA Lifetime Learning, Alumni and Parent Engagement as a part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.

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. Vagrancy laws were so broad and flexible that they made it possible for the police to arrest anyone out of place: Beats and hippies; Communists and Vietnam War protestors; racial minorities and civil rights activists; gays, single women, and prostitutes. 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.  By the end of the 1960s, vagrancy laws were discredited and American society was fundamentally transformed.

In Vagrant Nation, Risa Goluboff reads the history of the entire era through the lens of vagrancy laws and shows how constitutional challenges to them helped constitute the multiple movements that made “the 1960s.” As Goluboff links the human stories of those arrested to the great controversies of the time, she powerfully demonstrates how ordinary people, with the help of lawyers and judges, can change the meaning of the Constitution.  Since the downfall of vagrancy laws in 1972, battles over what, if anything, should replace them, like battles over the legacy of the Sixties transformations themselves, are far from over.

Praise for Vagrant Nation:

“Vagrant Nation is an extraordinary accomplishment, one of the best books of constitutional history ever written. Using vagrancy law as her launching pad, Goluboff ties together and sheds light upon all of the major social reform movements of the 1960s and the constitutional law that arose around them-civil rights, gay rights, criminal procedure rights, the free speech rights of communists and Vietnam War protestors, the expressive rights of hippies and beatniks, and the sexual revolution. In the process, Goluboff teaches us how constitutional law gets made.” –Michael J. Klarman, Kirkland & Ellis Professor, Harvard Law School

“Vagrant Nation is a fascinating account of how constitutional change occurs when old laws and new social understandings collide.” –Linda Greenhouse, Lecturer, Yale Law School

“Vagrant Nation tells how police used vagrancy laws as all-purpose weapons to stifle the movements defining the Sixties, and how a movement of movements persuaded the Supreme Court to eradicate those laws and ban jailing people simply because they were different-black, poor, gay, hippie, or antiwar. It’s a brilliant account of how a forgotten campaign to reform the law made America a more tolerant and much better country.” –Lincoln Caplan, Truman Capote Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School

“A masterful exploration of constitutional change! Goluboff presents a fascinating account of how dragnet criminal laws, once considered desirable protection against undesirables, clashed with emerging visions of a more inclusive society.” –Susan Herman, President, American Civil Liberties Union


Risa Goluboff

Professor, Law and History; Incoming Dean of the School of Law

Risa Goluboff studies American constitutional and civil rights law, and especially their development in the twentieth century. In addition to numerous shorter works, Goluboff is the author of two books. Her first book, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights (Harvard, 2007), won the  2008 James Willard Hurst Prize and the 2010 Order of the Coif Biennial Book Award. Her second book, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (Oxford, 2016) was supported by a 2009 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Constitutional Studies and a 2012 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. Goluboff is also co-editor (with Myriam Gilles) of Civil Rights Stories (Foundation Press, 2008).

Goluboff teaches constitutional law, civil rights litigation, and legal and constitutional history, and she directs UVA’s joint J.D.-M.A. program in history. In 2011, she received the University of Virginia’s All-University Teaching Award. She is an affiliated GAGE scholar at the Miller Center and a faculty affiliate at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. In 2012, Goluboff was named a distinguished lecturer by the Organization of American Historians.
Prior to joining the Law School, Goluboff clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Claudrena Harold (Moderator)

Associate Professor, Corcoran Department of History and the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies

Claudrena Harold is an Associate Professor in the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African- American and African Studies and the Corcoran Department of History, where she teaches Black Studies, African American history, and U.S. Labor history. She is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918–1942, which chronicles the history of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) from the perspective of black women and men living below the Mason-Dixon Line. She is currently at work on No Ordinary Sacrifice: New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South, 1917–1929, a book-length project that examines the critical role of the southern black majority in the making of New Negro modernity.