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Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964)

Last Updated: 2006

In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause did not prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations (privately owned establishments that serve a public purpose such as hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, and so on). The Court reasoned that the amendment applied only to discriminatory action by state governments, not by private organizations. For the better part of the next century, owners of public accommodations were free to discriminate. Although the Court later expanded its definition of what constitutes state action, it has never reversed the state action doctrine.

In Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress attempted to end racial discrimination in public accommodations. Congress justified the act as consistent with its powers under the Commerce Clause, which authorizes Congress to regulate interstate commerce; the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which empowers Congress to pass legislation to enforce provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), the Court held unanimously that it was permissible to use the Commerce Clause to promote social policy as long as the activity in question affected interstate commerce. The Court found that Congress had provided adequate evidence to demonstrate that racial discrimination resulted in a general lack of rooms available to African Americans who were traveling interstate, and that this affected interstate commerce. Because the Commerce Clause was enough to justify Congress’s action, the Court did not reach the Fourteenth Amendment issue and thus avoided having to revisit the state action doctrine that the Court articulated in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. In a concurring opinion, Justice William Douglas criticized the Court for not basing its decision on the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Commerce Clause. He argued that protections against racial discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment were stronger than under the Commerce Clause and that such an approach would avoid a case-by-case analysis of whether a given instance of racial discrimination affected interstate commerce.

SEE ALSO: Commerce among the StatesFourteenth Amendment


Civil Rights Act of 1964: Title II; and Richard C. Cortner, Civil Rights and Public Accommodations: The Heart of Atlanta and McClung Cases (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2001).