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Introduction

World War II brought African Americans closer to the mainstream of American life than ever before. Many moved out of the South to take jobs in defense industries. Others served in the still segregated military. (President Truman integrated the military in 1948.) Still, they were not fully part of American life. In the 1950s, African Americans and their allies organized a movement to gain full civil rights, to realize a dream too long deferred, as Langston Hughes put it in “Harlem.” Boycotts of white businesses, public transportation, and marches gave impetus to the movement. Reputedly one of the most segregated cities in the United States, Birmingham, Alabama became, in 1963,  a center of protest and action against discrimination and the denial of civil rights. Faced with continuing discrimination and rising protests, President John F. Kennedy decided to support a new civil rights law. (Congress had passed a series of such laws during the decade following the Civil War.) On June 11, 1963, after consulting with Congressional leaders, Kennedy addressed the American people to explain why the new law was necessary. Eight days later he sent the bill to Congress.

Opponents objected to various provisions, including equal access to public accommodations, but also to what they felt was its unconstitutional extension of federal power. Supporters organized a March on Washington in August 1963, at which Martin Luther King gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Stressing non-violent civil disobedience, King had become the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Opposition in Congress was sufficient, however, to prevent passage of the law. When Lyndon Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, he pushed for the new law, in part as a memorial to Kennedy. The law was passed July 2, 1964.

A motel in Atlanta, Georgia challenged the constitutionality of the public accommodation portion of the bill. The case reached the Supreme Court, which decided in December 1964 that the provision was a constitutional exercise of the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce. Attorneys General from Florida and Virginia had filed briefs urging that the lower court decision affirming the law be reversed, while attorneys general from California, Massachusetts and New York had filed briefs urging that it be upheld.

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States

, 379 U.S. 241 (1964). Available online from Justia. https://goo.gl/H2QGK3.


Appellant,1 the owner of a large motel in Atlanta, Georgia, which restricts its clientele to white persons, three-fourths of whom are transient interstate travelers, sued for declaratory relief and to enjoin enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, contending that the prohibition of racial discrimination in places of public accommodation affecting commerce exceeded Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause and violated other parts of the Constitution. A three-judge District Court upheld the constitutionality of Title II, 201 (a), (b) (1) and (c) (1), the provisions attacked, and on appellees’ counterclaim permanently enjoined appellant from refusing to accommodate Negro guests for racial reasons. Held:

  1. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause as applied to a place of public accommodation serving interstate travelers. . . .
  2. JUSTICE CLARK2 delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a declaratory judgment3 action, . . . attacking the constitutionality of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. . . . In addition to declaratory relief the complaint sought an injunction restraining the enforcement of the Act and damages against appellees based on allegedly resulting injury in the event compliance was required. Appellees4 counterclaimed for enforcement under [Section] 206 (a) of the Act and asked for a three-judge district court under 206 (b). A three-judge court, empaneled under [Section] 206 (b) as well as 28 U.S.C. 2282 (1958 ed.), sustained the validity of the Act and issued a permanent injunction on appellees’ counterclaim restraining appellant from continuing to violate the Act which remains in effect on order of MR. JUSTICE BLACK, 85 S. Ct. 1. We affirm the judgment.

1. The Factual Background and Contentions of the Parties. . . .

The appellant contends that Congress in passing this Act exceeded its power to regulate commerce under Art. I, 8, cl. 3, of the Constitution of the United States; that the Act violates the Fifth Amendment because appellant is deprived of the right to choose its customers and operate its business as it wishes, resulting in a taking of its liberty and property without due process of law and a taking of its property without just compensation; and, finally, that by requiring appellant to rent available rooms to Negroes against its will, Congress is subjecting it to involuntary servitude in contravention of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The appellees counter that the unavailability to Negroes of adequate accommodations interferes significantly with interstate travel, and that Congress, under the Commerce Clause, has power to remove such obstructions and restraints; that the Fifth Amendment does not forbid reasonable regulation and that consequential damage does not constitute a “taking” within the meaning of that amendment; that the Thirteenth Amendment claim fails because it is entirely frivolous to say that an amendment directed to the abolition of human bondage and the removal of widespread disabilities associated with slavery places discrimination in public accommodations beyond the reach of both federal and state law. . . .

. . .

3. Title II of the Act.

This Title is divided into seven sections beginning with 201 (a) which provides that:

“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

There are listed in 201 (b) four classes of business establishments, each of which “serves the public” and “is a place of public accommodation” within the meaning of 201 (a) “if its operations affect commerce, or if discrimination or segregation by it is supported by State action.” The covered establishments are:

“(1) any inn, hotel, motel, or other establishment which provides lodging to transient guests, other than an establishment located within a building which contains not more than five rooms for rent or hire and which is actually occupied by the proprietor of such establishment as his residence . . . .”

4. Application of Title II to Heart of Atlanta Motel.

It is admitted that the operation of the motel brings it within the provisions of 201 (a) of the Act and that appellant refused to provide lodging for transient N