Katzenbach v. McClung: Summary, Decision & Significance

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In this lesson, we will learn how the Supreme Court ruled whether it could be enforced on a private business.

Justice for All

Should bedrock ideas such as equality under the law be for everyone? Does it make sense that protections against discrimination apply only to some? This is the conundrum the Supreme Court was faced with in Katzenbach v. McClung (1964).

Facts of the Case

Ollie's Barbecue, owned by Ollie McClung, was a popular restaurant that operated in Birmingham, Alabama. Situated just off a state highway and not far from an interstate highway, it catered to locals as well as interstate travelers. The restaurant purchased roughly half of its food out of state in a given year. Its policy was that white customers were able to dine in while black customers had to purchase from the take-out service.

A black man goes into a segregated entrance to a theater in 1939.
Segregation

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in schools and public places. Title II of the act was purposefully written to grant everyone, including African-Americans, full access to public places such as hotels, restaurants, theaters, and public recreation areas.

On the same day as the signing of the Civil Rights Act, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Katzenbach v. McClung and a similar case, Hearts of Atlanta Hotel v. United States In both of these cases, the owners claimed that the act was unconstitutionally applied to them as the federal government had no authority to impose the provisions of the act on a private business.

Background

At first blush, a private entity does not come under federal enforcement of Constitutional rights, nor do patrons of private businesses enjoy constitutional protections against the acts of their owners. Why? In part because of the concept of federalism, which grants specific powers to a central government but limits that power to those areas. Further, the 10th Amendment provides that the federal government preempts state authority but only in those areas enumerated in the Constitution. All remaining power is retained by the states.

With the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which extended basic rights found in the Constitution to the citizens of the states, more powers were given to the federal government. It now had the authority to enforce the rights of state citizens against their state government. One such right was found in the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which prevents citizens from being treated differently under the law.

So what's the problem? It sounds like the 14th Amendment would prevent discrimination against citizens of a state. The problem was, Ollie's Barbecue is not the state; thus, the federal government had no authority to enforce those rights. However, the commerce clause in Article I of the Constitution states: ''The Congress shall have power to ... regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states.'' This allows the federal government to enforce federal law against private businesses if the law is related to commerce. So was the Civil Rights Act related to commerce?

Issue and Decision

The issue before the court was whether the commerce clause gave the federal government the right to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against a private business. The Supreme Court held that it did.

The Supreme Court ruled that the commerce clause gave the federal government the right to enforce the Civil Rights Act against a private company. Justice Tom Clark cited Wickard v. Filburn (1942), which held that a farmer was subject to federal crop restriction even if he grew corn for personal use because then that farmer wouldn't be buying corn on the interstate market. This was enough of an impact to warrant federal regulation of a local farmer's crops.

However, Clark admitted that the Wickard ruling didn't go far enough to settle the present. Why? Because the activity proscribed in the federal law must be related to activity of the business. In Wickard, the federal law regulated crop growing, and the farmer grew excess corn, and it was that excess corn that impacted commerce.

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