Civil Rights and Public Accommodations

The Heart of Atlanta Motel and McClung Cases

Richard C. Cortner

The struggle for civil rights in America was fought at the lunch counter as well as in the streets. It ultimately found victory in the halls of government—but, as Richard Cortner reveals, only through a creative use of congressional power and critical judicial decisions.

Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, and shortly after its passage blacks were refused service at the Heart of Atlanta Motel and at Ollie's Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama, as a test of the new law by business owners who claimed the right to choose their own customers. These challenges made their way to the Supreme Court, becoming landmark cases frequently cited in law. Until now, however, they have never benefited from book-length analysis. Cortner provides an inside account of the litigation in both decisions to tell how they spelled the end to segregation in the South

“This book reminds us that integration, which we now think very little about, was a hard-won and very recent species of judicial activism that propelled our society out of the last vestiges of slavery into an arena with new problems and challenges. It is a step-by-step articulation of a legal theory into social policy. Along the way we meet the intellectuals, the buffoons, and the judges who turn policy into law and uphold the law. We see the fears of mass riots in the South and the effect of the civil rights demonstrations on the courts. We see the tussle between the moral issue and the need to frame it as a legal one. We see the limits of efficiency and desire. Most of all we see the system’s moral conscience and legal conscience work together to craft a masterpiece.

—New York Law Journal

“A thoughtful and thorough account of a key episode in twentieth-century American legal history.

—American Historical Review
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The fact that blacks could not travel in the South without assured access to food and lodging led Congress to enforce civil rights on the basis of its authority to regulate interstate commerce. The Supreme Court unanimously sustained Title II's constitutionality under the commerce clause in both test cases, joining the executive and legislative branches in defining the power of the federal government to desegregate society, even by circuitous means.

Drawing on justice department files, Supreme Court justices' papers, and records of defense attorneys, Cortner provides the background for the cases, including previous legal battles over sit-ins. He describes the roles of key players in the litigation—particularly Solicitor General Archibald Cox and members of the Warren Court. In addition, he uses presidential files, oral histories, and other primary sources to give readers a clear picture of the forces at work in the creation, implementation, and validation of the Civil Rights Act.

Cortner's thorough account illuminates the nature of constitutional litigation and the judicial process, as well as the role of the Constitution and law, in two decisions that marked the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement and changed the face of America forever.

About the Author

Richard C. Cortner is professor of political science at the University of Arizona and author of ten other books, including The Supreme Court and the Second Bill of Rights and The Kingfish and the Constitution: Huey Long, the First Amendment, and the Emergence of Modern Press Freedom in America.