Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 U.S. 241 (1964)

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KATZENBACH v. MCCLUNG 379 U.S. 294 (1964)

In these cases the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the portion of the civil rights act of 1964 forbidding racial discrimination by hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations.

Congressional debates had discussed the appropriate source of congressional power to prohibit private racial discrimination. The commerce clause was proposed as a safe foundation for the bill; since 1937 the Supreme Court had upheld every congressional regulation of commerce that came before it. Because Congress obviously was seeking to promote racial equality, some thought the commerce clause approach "artificial" and thus "demeaning." They argued for reliance on the power of Congress to enforce the fourteenth amendment. That amendment's state action limitation, however, seemed to obstruct reaching private discrimination. As enacted, the 1964 act's public accommodations provisions were limited to establishments whose operations "affect commerce" or whose racial discrimination is "supported by state action."

The Supreme Court moved swiftly, accelerating decision in these two cases. The majority relied on the commerce power, validating the act in application not only to a large whites-only motel that mainly served out-of-state guests but also to a restaurant with no similar connection to interstate travel. The latter case, McClung, illustrates how far the commerce power has been stretched in recent years to allow Congress to legislate on matters of national concern. The restaurant mainly served a local clientele; it served blacks, but only at a take-out counter. Almost half the food used by the restaurant had come from other states, but even the Court recognized that this fact was trivial. More persuasive was the fact, fully documented in congressional hearings, that discrimination in public accommodations severely hindered interstate travel by blacks. Justices william o. douglas and arthur j. goldberg, concurring, argued that both the commerce clause and the Fourteenth Amendment empowered Congress to impose these regulations.

In retrospect the pre-enactment debate over which power Congress should assert seems unimportant, in either institutional or doctrinal terms. Congress need not, after all, specify which of its powers it is using. And the Supreme Court has not needed to explore the full reach of Congress's Fourteenth Amendment power, because in jones v. alfred h. mayer co. (1968) it held that the thirteenth amendment empowered Congress to prohibit private racial discrimination.

(See badges of servitude.)

Kenneth L. Karst

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Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 U.S. 241 (1964)

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