Black History Month Reflections from Fr. Brown: Green Book

By Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J.

"May It Please the Court" book coverGreen Book won the Academy award for Best Picture this year. To appreciate the history of the Green Book, it is worth reading the transcript excerpted here from the landmark Supreme Court case Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 1964. The New York Times editorial gives us the context for the decision and the movie.

“Imagine trudging into a hotel with your family at midnight — after a long grueling drive — and being turned away by a clerk who ‘loses’ your reservation when he sees your black face.”

The Green Book was the travelers’ bible for black people who wanted to make a trip through the Jim Crow-segregated South. Watch the movie. Experience the situation. Read the Heart of Atlanta decision. Let’s remember and continue to fight for racial equality.

Heart of Atlanta Motel

v. United States

379 U.S. 241 (1964)

Atlanta proudly calls itself “the heart of Dixie,” and the Heart of Atlanta Motel is located in the city’s bustling center, drawing travelers from a busy interstate highway. During the 1960s, Atlanta was at the heart of the black movement for equal rights that won its greatest victory in congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title II of the act outlawed racial segregation in places of public accommodation, including hotels and motels. Congress based the law on its constitutional power to regulate “commerce among the several states.” The Heart of Atlanta Motel, which drew 75 percent of its patrons from other states, challenged the law and claimed that “people are not commerce.” But the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the law in December 1964. “Congress, acting with its discretion and judgment,” Justice Hugo Black wrote, “has power under the Commerce Clause to ban racial discrimination.”


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

Counsel for petitioner: Moreton Rolleston, Jr., Atlanta, Georgia

Counsel for respondent: Solicitor General Archibald Cox, Washington, D.C.

Narrator: It’s October 5th, 1964. Chief Justice Earl Warren has called the year’s first case, Heart of Atlanta Motel versus the United States. The motel’s owners refuse to rent rooms to black travelers. They deny the Constitution requires them to admit and serve all races. This case reached the Court just months after Congress enacted the most sweeping civil rights act in American history. But the deeper issues—moral, political, and social—have divided Americans since the Constitution was framed.

This case really began with the institution of human slavery. Blacks came to America in chains and were sold as property. The Constitution accepted and protected the slave trade. The Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case in 1857 that blacks could not be citizens, were not even persons under the law. More than six hundred thousand people—North and South, black and white—died in a Civil War that ended slavery. Congress added the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, providing blacks with the “privileges and immunities” of other citizens and granting them the “equal protection of the laws.”

Congress enforced the Fourteenth Amendment with a civil rights act that banned segregation in places like hotels and restaurants. But the Supreme Court struck down the law. Congress could not prevent segregation on private property. “When a man has emerged from slavery,” the Court wrote, he “ceases to be the special favorite of the laws.” Southern states responded with Jim

Crow laws that barred blacks from railroad cars, hotel rooms, and restaurants. The Supreme Court upheld segregation in Plessy versus Ferguson in 1896.

This setback did not end the crusade against Jim Crow. Led by Thurgood Marshall, civil rights lawyers won a great victory in 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution. But other forms of legal segregation hung on. In 1960, four black students sat down at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sparked a sit-in movement that swept across the South. Die-hard segregationists answered with bombs and bullets. Four young black girls died in a church bombing in Alabama. Three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi.

Congress responded to national revulsion against racial violence. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodations. The law did not rely on the Fourteenth Amendment but the constitutional clause that gives Congress power to regulate “commerce among the several states.” Congress held that segregation disrupts the flow of commerce across state lines. The law was quickly challenged by the Heart of Atlanta Motel and quickly upheld by a lower federal court. Chief Justice Warren welcomes Moreton Rolleston, a prominent Atlanta lawyer who argues the motel’s appeal.

Warren: Mr. Rolleston.

Rolleston: Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

Now, the facts in this case are very simple. As a matter of fact, the parties in the case tried to make them simple…. The Heart of Atlanta Motel, Incorporated, is a Georgia corporation which owns a motel in Atlanta named the Heart of Atlanta Motel. It is the only business it operates. It is the only business it has in Atlanta. The motel has 216 rooms. It is located in downtown Atlanta and fronting on an interstate highway. By stipulation we agreed that over 75 percent of all the business in the form of guests comes from out of the state of Georgia, that most of the convention business is solicited from out of the state of Georgia, and that we have highway billboards on roads in Georgia.

Narrator: Rolleston listed his objections to the law.

Rolleston: There are five theories of law that we rely on in this case. Number one, that the law of the land—and any lawyer is delighted to have a “white horse case” that says what the law of the land is, if it is true—is our first one; that is, the decision in the Civil Rights Cases which was upheld by this Court in 1883.

Narrator: One justice had never heard of a “white horse case.” Rolleston said it was “one that just fits your case exactly.” He continued.

Rolleston: The second proposition is that the Fourteenth Amendment—neither the Fourteenth Amendment nor the Constitution prohibit racial discrimination by an individual.

The third proposition, we contend that the Civil Rights Act is an unlawful extension of the power of commerce [Congress] under the commerce clause.

Number five [sic], we contend that the act, the Civil Rights Act, violates the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution; and last, that it violates the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

And we submit, gentlemen, that if we can prevail on any theory, any one of those five theories, then this act’s got to fail.

Narrator: Rolleston challenged the power of Congress over private property.

Rolleston: The fundamental question, besides the legal question of the constitutionality of the act, the fundamental question, I submit, is whether or not Congress has the power to take away the liberty of an individual to run his business as he sees fit in the selection and choice of his customers. This is the real important issue. And the fact of alleged civil rights of the Negroes involved here is purely incidental, because if Congress can exercise these controls over the right of individuals, it is plausible that there is no limit to Congress’s power to appropriate private property and liberty.

It is my contention that any Supreme Court, when a case comes before it—it doesn’t make any difference what the people thought that enacted the law or what was the theory of the people who argued the case before the Court. The Court has to look at the Constitution as it stands and any amendments to it, and regardless of whether we have anything to say about them as counsel, to consider the pros and cons of the case, and apply the law as it is, not how it is argued or how the people in Congress thought it should be.

Narrator: Cox faced the crucial question: Are people commerce?

Cox: I say that the movement of people from state to state is a movement in commerce, yes. I hesitate a little to say that the people are commerce, but it’s certainly movement in commerce.

We think there was ample evidence on which Congress could conclude that the racial practices in hotels and motels and like places did have a very substantial effect upon the movement of people in interstate commerce and that therefore this statute as applied to them is a measure adapted to freeing interstate commerce from restraints and burdens.

The fact that Congress has prohibited hotels and motels from discriminating against all guests rather than against interstate guests does not invalidate the statute. To require a traveler to carry a cachet to show that he is interstate would itself be a burden on commerce. Furthermore, to require the Negro interstate traveler to prove that he was traveling in interstate commerce would itself be a form of discrimination.

Narrator: Cox denied that Congress had taken the motel’s property.

Cox: The argument that Congress violated the Fifth Amendment has equally little merit. Certainly there is no taking of property for a public use. The regulation of the conduct of a business is not a taking. Appellants say that they will lose profits as a result of this regulation. Experience rather indicates the contrary, but assuming that that is true, still it has clearly been held that subjecting a man to regulation otherwise proper along with all other similar businesses does not violate the Fifth Amendment simply because he loses money.

Nor does the prohibition of racial discrimination take liberty or property without due process of law. Over and over again, the Court has sustained and enforced statutes prohibiting various forms of racial discrimination.

Narrator: Cox ended with lofty words.

Cox: We shall solve the problems as one people, and thus escape the consequences of the sins of the past, only if we act in the spirit of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: without malice, with charity, and perhaps above all, without that spirit of false self-righteousness that enables men who are not themselves without fault to point the finger at their fellows.


Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States.

That Congress was legislating against moral wrongs in many of these areas rendered its enactments no less valid. In framing Title II of this Act Congress was also dealing with what it considered a moral problem. But that fact does not detract from the overwhelming evidence of the disruptive effect that racial discrimination has had on commercial intercourse. It was this burden which empowered Congress to enact appropriate legislation, and, given this basis for the exercise of its power, Congress was not restricted by the fact that the particular obstruction to interstate commerce with which it was dealing was also deemed a moral and social wrong.

It is said that the operation of the motel here is of a purely local character. But… 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….

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.

… 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….

We find no merit in the remainder of appellant’s contentions, including that of “involuntary servitude.”… [T]hirty-two 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.


Read other Black History Month Reflections by Father Brown

The Warmth of Other Suns

Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture

Central Park Five

A Lucille Clifton Poem

A Langston Hughes Poem

Knowing Christ Crucified

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