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 Negroes because of their race or color and that it intends to continue that policy unless restrained.

The sole question posed is, therefore, the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as applied to these facts. The legislative history of the Act indicates that Congress based the Act on [Section] 5 [below] and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as its power to regulate interstate commerce under Art. I, 8, cl. 3, of the Constitution. . . .

5. The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 (1883), and their Application.

In light of our ground for decision, it might be well at the outset to discuss the Civil Rights Cases . . . which declared provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. . . . We think [the] decision inapposite, and without precedential value in determining the constitutionality of the present Act. Unlike Title II of the present legislation, the 1875 Act broadly proscribed discrimination in “inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement,” without limiting the categories of affected businesses to those impinging upon interstate commerce. In contrast, the applicability of Title II is carefully limited to enterprises having a direct and substantial relation to the interstate flow of goods and people, except where state action is involved. Further, the fact that certain kinds of businesses may not in 1875 have been sufficiently involved in interstate commerce to warrant bringing them within the ambit of the commerce power is not necessarily dispositive of the same question today. Our populace had not reached its present mobility, nor were facilities, goods and services circulating as readily in interstate commerce as they are today. Although the principles which we apply today are those first formulated by Chief Justice Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1 (1824), the conditions of transportation and commerce have changed dramatically, and we must apply those principles to the present state of commerce. The sheer increase in volume of interstate traffic alone would give discriminatory practices which inhibit travel a far larger impact upon the Nation’s commerce than such practices had on the economy of another day. Finally, there is language in the Civil Rights Cases which indicates that the Court did not fully consider whether the 1875 Act could be sustained as an exercise of the commerce power. Though the Court observed that, “no one will contend that the power to pass it was contained in the Constitution before the adoption of the last three amendments [Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth],” the Court went on specifically to note that the Act was not “conceived” in terms of the commerce power . . .

Since the commerce power was not relied on by the Government and was without support in the record it is understandable that the Court narrowed its inquiry and excluded the Commerce Clause as a possible source of power. In any event, it is clear that such a limitation renders the opinion devoid of authority for the proposition that the Commerce Clause gives no power to Congress to regulate discriminatory practices now found substantially to affect interstate commerce. We, therefore, conclude that the Civil Rights Cases have no relevance to the basis of decision here where the Act explicitly relies upon the commerce power, and where the record is filled with testimony of obstructions and restraints resulting from the discriminations found to be existing. We now pass to that phase of the case.

6. The Basis of Congressional Action.

While the Act, as adopted, carried no congressional findings, the record of its passage through each house is replete with evidence of the burdens that discrimination by race or color places upon interstate commerce. . . . This testimony included the fact that our people have become increasingly mobile with millions of people of all races traveling from State to State; that Negroes in particular have been the subject of discrimination in transient accommodations, having to travel great distances to secure the same; that often they have been unable to obtain accommodations and have had to call upon friends to put them up overnight . . . and that these conditions had become so acute as to require the listing of available lodging for Negroes in a special guidebook which was itself “dramatic testimony to the difficulties” Negroes encounter in travel. . . . These exclusionary practices were found to be nationwide, the Under Secretary of Commerce testifying that there is “no question that this discrimination in the North still exists to a large degree” and in the West and Midwest as well. . . . This testimony indicated a qualitative as well as quantitative effect on interstate travel by Negroes. The former was the obvious impairment of the Negro traveler’s pleasure and convenience that resulted when he continually was uncertain of finding lodging. As for the latter, there was evidence that this uncertainty stemming from racial discrimination had the effect of discouraging travel on the part of a substantial portion of the Negro community. . . . This was the conclusion not only of the Under Secretary of Commerce but also of the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Agency who wrote the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that it was his “belief that air commerce is adversely affected by the denial to a substantial segment of the traveling public of adequate and desegregated public accommodations.” . . . We shall not burden this opinion with further details since the voluminous testimony presents overwhelming evidence that discrimination by hotels and motels impedes interstate travel.

7. The Power of Congress Over Interstate Travel.

The power of Congress to deal with these obstructions depends on the meaning of the Commerce Clause. Its meaning was first enunciated 140 years ago by the great Chief Justice John Marshall in Gibbons v. Ogden . . . .

In short, the determinative test of the exercise of power by the Congress under the Commerce Clause is simply whether the activity sought to be regulated is “commerce which concerns more States than one” and has a real and substantial relation to the national interest. Let us now turn to this facet of the problem. . . .

It is said that the operation of the motel here is of a purely local character. But, assuming this to be true, “[i]f it is interstate commerce that feels the pinch, it does not matter how local the operation which applies the squeeze.” United States v. Women’s Sportswear Mfrs. Assn., 336 U.S. 460, 464 (1949). . . .

Thus the power of Congress to promote interstate commerce also includes the power to regulate the local incidents thereof, including local activities in both the states of origin and destination, which might have a substantial and harmful effect upon that commerce. One need only examine the evidence which we have discussed above to see that Congress may – as it has –prohibit racial discrimination by motels serving travelers, however “local” their operations may appear.

Nor does the Act deprive appellant of liberty or property under the Fifth Amendment. The commerce power invoked here by the Congress is a specific and plenary one authorized by the Constitution itself. The only questions are: (1) whether Congress had a rational basis for finding that racial discrimination by motels affected commerce, and (2) if it had such a basis, whether the means it selected to eliminate that evil are reasonable and appropriate. If they are, appellant has no “right” to select its guests as it sees fit, free from governmental regulation.

There is nothing novel about such legislation. Thirty-two States now have it on their books either by statute or executive order and many cities provide such regulation. Some of these Acts go back fourscore years. It has been repeatedly held by this Court that such laws do not violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. . . .

As we have pointed out, 32 states now have such provisions and no case has been cited to us where the attack on a state statute has been successful, either in federal or state courts. . . .

It is doubtful if in the long run appellant will suffer economic loss as a result of the Act. Experience is to the contrary where discrimination is completely obliterated as to all public accommodations. But whether this be true or not is of no consequence, since this Court has specifically held that the fact that a “member of the class which is regulated may suffer economic losses not shared by others . . . has never been a barrier” to such legislation. . . . Likewise, in a long line of cases, this Court has rejected the claim that the prohibition of racial discrimination in public accommodations interferes with personal liberty. . . . Neither do we find any merit in the claim that the Act is a taking of property without just compensation. The cases are to the contrary. . . . We find no merit in the remainder of appellant’s contentions, including that of “involuntary servitude. As we have seen, 32 States prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations. These laws but codify the common-law innkeeper rule which long predated the Thirteenth Amendment. It is difficult to believe that the Amendment was intended to abrogate this principle. . . .

We therefore conclude that the action of the Congress in the adoption of the Act as applied here to a motel which concededly serves interstate travelers is within the power granted it by the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, as interpreted by this Court for 140 years. It may be argued that Congress could have pursued other methods to eliminate the obstructions it found in interstate commerce caused by racial discrimination. But this is a matter of policy that rests entirely with the Congress, not with the courts. How obstructions in commerce may be removed – what means are to be employed – is within the sound and exclusive discretion of the Congress. It is subject only to one caveat – that the means chosen by it must be reasonably adapted to the end permitted by the Constitution. We cannot say that its choice here was not so adapted. The Constitution requires no more.

Affirmed.

Study Questions

A. What are the arguments of Senators Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond for and against the Civil Rights Act? Are they making the same kinds of arguments? Proponents of civil rights like Martin Luther King and Fred L. Shuttlesworth appealed to the Declaration of Independence, as well as the Constitution; Thurmond to the Constitution and the rights it protects. Is there a conflict between the Declaration and the Constitution? How did the Supreme Court respond to those like Senator Thurmond who claimed that the Civil Rights Act violated the Fifth Amendment?

B. What is the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the rights claims made by workingmen, women, and African-Americans? Could those claims be made without the Declaration?

C. Consider the issues raised by the texts here in light of the discussion of the pernicious institution of slavery; how have attitudes from the earlier time period remained in force? How have they changed?

Footnotes

  1. a person, in this case, the owner of the Atlanta Motel, who applies to a higher court for a reversal of the decision of a lower court
  2. Associate Justice Tom C. Clark (1899–1977)
  3. a judgment that establishes rights
  4. the party against whom an appeal is filed