Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court endorsed laws forbidding private discrimination by hotels, restaurants, and other places of public accommodation in the case of Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States.

Summary of Event

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1868 to provide protection for the newly freed slaves. After the Civil War, Congress passed several broad statutes aimed at protecting African Americans against racial discrimination in housing and contracts. These laws were needed because, although they were freed from slavery, African Americans still suffered from severe discrimination in all aspects of American life. The Supreme Court took a narrow view of congressional power in 1883, however, and issued a decision that prevented Congress from attempting to stop private individuals and companies from engaging in racial discrimination. The Supreme Court said that Congress could enact laws aimed only at governmental discrimination. In effect, the Supreme Court declared that African Americans could be victims of blatant discrimination by private entities without any interference from the law. As a result, many African Americans’ lives changed little from their experience as slaves. They were still forced to work as agricultural laborers because they were not permitted to be trained and hired for other jobs. Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;discrimination Civil rights;United States Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) Civil Rights Act of 1964 [kw]Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations (Dec. 14, 1964) [kw]Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations, Supreme Court Prohibits (Dec. 14, 1964) [kw]Discrimination in Public Accommodations, Supreme Court Prohibits Racial (Dec. 14, 1964) [kw]Public Accommodations, Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in (Dec. 14, 1964) Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;discrimination Civil rights;United States Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) Civil Rights Act of 1964 [g]North America;Dec. 14, 1964: Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations[08290] [g]United States;Dec. 14, 1964: Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations[08290] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 14, 1964: Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations[08290] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 14, 1964: Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations[08290] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 14, 1964: Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations[08290] Clark, Tom C. Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;civil rights Cox, Archibald Thurmond, Strom

Because no federal laws could prevent private discrimination, until 1964 African Americans were deprived of many opportunities readily enjoyed by white people. If they wished to travel, African Americans frequently could not find motels that would accept them or restaurants that would serve them. African Americans were forced to carry their own food if they went on bus trips and often had to knock on doors in African American neighborhoods in order to find families that would put them up for the night in private homes. For example, when professional baseball teams had spring training in Florida every year, the white players stayed in hotels while their African American teammates rented rooms in the homes of local African American families. Similar circumstances arose when northern college sports teams traveled to the South for games. Racial segregation and discrimination were so severe that bus stations had separate waiting rooms, rest rooms, and drinking fountains for African American passengers. In many cities, black and white friends could dine together only in African American-owned restaurants, because African Americans were not allowed to eat in white-owned establishments. In sum, it was very difficult for African Americans to travel and shop because they were denied access to so many business establishments.

Beginning in the 1940’s, members of Congress made repeated attempts to enact antidiscrimination legislation. The structure of Congress, however, gave members power according to seniority. Because southerners had the most seniority, they controlled many of the legislative committees. Thus, by keeping bills tied up in committee hearings, they could prevent Congress from considering proposed legislation. Southern congressmembers were very successful in ensuring that only weak civil rights laws, if any, were enacted by Congress.

Beginning in the 1940’s and 1950’s, many African Americans organized boycotts, marches, and other protests to challenge racial discrimination. Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Peaceful protesters were often met by violent mobs of whites or were attacked, beaten, and arrested by all-white police forces. Shortly after highly publicized demonstrations against racial discrimination in Alabama during May, 1963, President John F. Kennedy decided to send a major civil rights bill to Congress. Title II of the proposed legislation that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited private discrimination in places of public accommodation, including hotels, motels, restaurants, and theaters. President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963, while the bill was working its way through Congress. Upon succeeding to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson made the civil rights bill his major legislative priority. Within days of Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson asked a joint session of Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act as a memorial to President Kennedy.

When the Senate held hearings to consider the proposed legislation, questions arose concerning congressional power to outlaw private discrimination. The Supreme Court had clearly stated in 1883 that Congress lacked such power under the Fourteenth Amendment. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy testified that Congress possessed the power to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations through its constitutional authority to regulate interstate commerce. Kennedy and his assistants argued that racial discrimination in public accommodations hampered the national economy because it prevented African Americans from traveling freely. Moreover, it deterred northern companies from expanding into the South because they did not wish to subject their African American employees to severe discrimination.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, one of the consistent opponents of civil rights legislation, questioned Attorney General Kennedy closely. From the repeated questioning, it was clear that the Civil Rights Act’s supporters were not completely certain about precisely which private businesses would be prevented from discriminating under the law. Although a national bus company could clearly be regulated under congressional power over interstate commerce, it was not clear whether establishments such as neighborhood diners and barbershops were subject to federal laws governing commerce. If these small businesses were involved only in the local economy and did not affect interstate commerce, then Congress presumably would be unable to prevent them from engaging in racial discrimination.

When the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, it was immediately challenged by southern businesses that wished to continue engaging in racial discrimination. The Heart of Atlanta Motel claimed that it was not engaged in interstate commerce because it provided services at one location inside Georgia. The motel wished to continue its practice of refusing to rent rooms to African American customers, so it filed a legal action seeking to have federal judges declare that the Civil Rights Act was invalid. Although it usually takes several years for cases to work their way through the judicial system in order to reach the Supreme Court, the high court took up the issue of discrimination in public accommodations without delay in late 1964.

In opposition to the motel’s arguments, Archibald Cox, the solicitor general of the United States, argued to the Supreme Court that congressional power to regulate interstate commerce should be construed broadly to cover all businesses which affect commerce in any way. Even if a business appeared to be limited to local customers, Cox argued that it would have links to interstate commerce. For example, a neighborhood barbershop’s equipment inevitably includes a chair, a pair of scissors, or other equipment that was manufactured in another state.

On December 14, 1964, only two months after hearing oral arguments, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that endorsed congressional power to outlaw private discrimination in public accommodations. The Court’s opinion in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, written by Justice Tom C. Clark, acknowledged that racial discrimination had prevented African Americans from enjoying their right to travel. Because the Heart of Atlanta Motel served many travelers from outside Georgia, it was found to affect interstate commerce and therefore to come under the antidiscrimination laws. In this and other decisions concerning Title II of the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court interpreted congressional power to regulate interstate commerce so broadly that virtually every private business, no matter how localized in nature, was barred from engaging in racial discrimination. Scholars argue that the Court dispensed with legal arguments concerning technical limitations on congressional power because the justices were committed to endorsing all governmental efforts to combat racial discrimination.

Significance

After the Supreme Court’s decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel, the United States Department of Justice Department of Justice, U.S. initiated hundreds of investigations into racial discrimination complaints concerning places of public accommodation. The Court’s decision clearly confirmed the federal government’s authority to prosecute businesses that failed to end discriminatory practices.

Through the combined efforts of Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court, African Americans could finally enjoy access to theaters, motels, and restaurants. The deeply entrenched practices of racial discrimination had been dealt a powerful blow by the federal government. As a result, African Americans who traveled could find motels and restaurants that would serve them. Many proprietors of public accommodation businesses initially resisted implementation of the antidiscrimination law by declining to serve African Americans or by being rude to African American customers. Over time, however, the American public, including business owners in the South, accepted the idea that all people should have equal access to public accommodations. Only a tiny number of businesses were so opposed to desegregation that they turned themselves into private clubs in order to avoid application of the Civil Rights Act.

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of l964 is regarded as one of the most effective civil rights laws ever enacted. Unlike laws concerning employment, in which there are controversies concerning proof of discrimination, Title II addresses a very straightforward subject. In the employment context, there might be many legally acceptable reasons why a particular individual did not receive a particular job. Thus, a minority applicant may find it difficult to discover whether illegal racial discrimination played a role in the hiring decision. In public accommodations, the question is much simpler. Were the customers provided with the services that they requested and for which they were willing to pay? Because discrimination in public accommodations, unlike that in employment, is very difficult to disguise, businesses throughout the United States have generally eliminated any vestiges of the formal discrimination that was previously so prevalent. In fact, proprietors of restaurants and other places of public accommodation have discovered that it is good for their businesses to seek African American customers. Previously, they not only deprived African Americans of services and the ability to travel but also deprived themselves of customers in a growing segment of the American population. Eventually, racial discrimination in public accommodations was pushed so firmly into the past that many establishments owned or controlled by whites developed advertising campaigns aimed specifically at African American consumers.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Heart of Atlanta Motel case indicated that all three branches of the federal government were committed to dismantling racial discrimination and segregation. The message sent by this decision not only warned segregationist interests that their power had been diminished but also helped mobilize and encourage civil rights supporters to pursue actively additional antidiscrimination statutes and favorable judicial decisions in areas such as housing and voting. Supreme Court, U.S.;racial discrimination Racial and ethnic discrimination;African Americans African Americans;discrimination Civil rights;United States Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964) Civil Rights Act of 1964

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Henry J., and Barbara A. Perry. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. 8th ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Thorough review of the Supreme Court’s cases interpreting the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. Contains good coverage of the cases and legal issues concerning the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cortner, Richard C. Civil Rights and Public Accommodations: The Heart of Atlanta Motel and McClung Cases. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001. A work dedicated to the Supreme Court case on racial discrimination in public accommodations. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cox, Archibald. The Warren Court: Constitutional Decision as an Instrument of Reform. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968. Discussion of how Supreme Court decisions affect social issues. Contains commentary about the design of particular arguments presented to the Supreme Court in the Heart of Atlanta Motel case by the lawyer who presented those arguments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me: The Definitive Griffin Estate Edition, Corrected from Original Manuscripts. 1961. San Antonio, Tex.: Wings Press, 2004. First-person account by a white writer who had his skin medically “darkened” to travel throughout the South in 1959. Describes the discrimination and harassment that faced African Americans prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act. A classic text, and widely read.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loevy, Robert D.“’To Write It in the Books of Law’: President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” In Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Uses of Power, edited by Bernard J. Firestone and Robert C. Vogt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Detailed account of the events leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Provides insights into the role played by Johnson in pushing the legislation past opponents in Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nieman, Donald G. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Discussion of racial discrimination in the United States. Provides a thorough history of the ways in which courts and other government institutions failed to provide African Americans with the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Selma-Montgomery March

Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing

Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Housing Discrimination

Categories: History Content