It may come as a surprise to the uninitiated that much of our nation’s civil-rights legislation has been upheld on the basis of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. But Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by its very language, prohibited racial discrimination by privately owned public accommodations—such as motels, theaters, and restaurants—due to the impact of such discrimination on interstate commerce.
Ollie McClung owned Ollie’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama. Ollie’s had long refused to serve black patrons, so McClung sued to challenge the constitutionality of the law banning that discrimination. McClung argued that his restaurant was a local establishment and had almost no effect on interstate commerce. Thus, McClung alleged that the law was unconstitutional as applied to him and his restaurant.
McClung won in district court, and Katzenbach, who was the U.S. attorney general named in the case, appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.
The Court concluded that the law must be upheld so long as Congress had a rational basis for concluding that racial discrimination had a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The Court noted that Congress had considered evidence that racial discrimination discouraged black people from interstate travel, reduced the amount of money black people spent across state lines, and decreased restaurant sales.
Based on this, the Court upheld Title II based on Congress’s rational basis for determining that racial discrimination in restaurants like Ollie’s had a substantial effect on interstate commerce.
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