Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964)


In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. Title II of the Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination and segregation in places of public accommodation if their operations affected commerce. This title was based on the Interstate Commerce Clause, in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, that states Congress may “regulate commerce… among the several states.” The primary rationale behind Title II was that racial discrimination could harm general economic welfare. The other rationale was that failing to ban racial discrimination violates the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment, which states that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” 

The Heart of Atlanta Motel in Atlanta, Georgia had a history of refusing to serve African-American customers. The Motel was located near two interstate highways. The owner claimed that Title II of the Civil Rights Act was not covered under the Interstate Commerce Clause. The Motel also claimed that the Act violated the 5th Amendment right to due process and the 13th Amendment banning involuntary servitude. The Supreme Court was asked to determine if Title II of the Civil Rights Act exceeded congressional interstate commerce powers. 


In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld Title II of the Civil Rights Act, noting it fell inside the Interstate Commerce Clause. Justice Tom C. Clark wrote the opinion, deciding because the Motel hosted out of state travelers and fell beside Interstates 75 and 85, that the Motel’s positioning and its customers mean that it was subject to congressional regulation to serve national economic objectives. The Court also denied the Motel’s 5th and 13th Amendment claims. The Court did not acknowledge the second rationale behind the Civil Rights Act under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, and therefore did not uphold that reasoning. 

Justice Hugo Black, Justice Arthur Goldberg, and Justice William O. Douglas wrote concurrences to Justice Clark’s opinion. Justice Douglas reasoned under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, claiming that the Motel failed to provide equal protection. 


In United States v. Lopez in 1995, the Supreme Court differed from Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964). Alfonzo Lopez was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1990, which made carrying a firearm in a school zone a federal crime under the Interstate Commerce Clause. Justice William Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion for the Court, arguing that the commerce powers are not a blank check to Congress, and all commerce can not be understood as interstate commerce. The Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zone Act, and the Court departed from the reasoning established in Heart of Atlanta Motel.

Think Further

  1. Do you think the Court would have ruled differently if the Heart of Atlanta Motel was not near two highways and did not have out of state travelers? 
  2. How can racial discrimination harm interstate commerce?
  3. What reasoning behind Title II of the Civil Rights Act do you find more compelling: the Commerce Clause or the Equal Protection Clause?


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Learn More

  1. “Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Heart-of-Atlanta-Motel-v-United-States
  2. “Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1964/515.
  3. “United States v. Lopez.” Oyez, www.oyez.org/cases/1994/93-1260.