This luxury high-rise hotel in downtown Atlanta–it’s a Hilton, for the record–stands on the site of an important milestone in the struggle for civil rights and against racial discrimination in the United States. Half a century ago a different lodging establishment occupied this site. It was called the Heart of Atlanta Motel, and it was run by a man named Moreton Rolleston. Like most hotels in the South of that period, it refused to rent rooms to African-Americans. That was quite customary in the segregation-era South (and in many parts of the North too).
On July 2, 1964, that became illegal when the Civil Rights Act, signed that day by President Lyndon Johnson, went into effect. The act banned discrimination on the basis of race in public accommodations and day-to-day commercial transactions, such as motels, restaurants and the like. Opponents of the act sought a court challenge immediately. Rolleston and his motel offered the perfect test case. After refusing service to black patrons and inviting sanction under the Civil Rights Act, the Heart of Atlanta Motel and its lawyers claimed the Act was unconstitutional. The grounds were that Congress passed the Act under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, on the theory that racial discrimination negatively impacted interstate commerce, and Congress could regulate that under the Constitution. This was a different approach than the civil rights legislation Congress had attempted to pass in the 1870s, under the Fourteenth Amendment, which was quickly struck down.
Here’s what the Heart of Atlanta Motel looked like in 1956, eight years before the court decision that wrote it into the history books.
Forty-nine years ago today, on December 14, 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States. It ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was perfectly constitutional and that Congress did have the right to prohibit discrimination by using the Commerce Clause. The Court’s unanimous decision also rejected Rolleston’s other claims, such as a perfectly silly argument that taking away his right to discriminate against African-Americans violated the Thirteenth Amendment (the amendment banning slavery). Yeah right.
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States was one of the most important decisions for civil rights and anti-discrimination in American history. Since 1964, almost all anti-discrimination legislation has rested on the Commerce Clause. It was a vital and indispensable victory in the struggle to create a more inclusive, tolerant and diverse society.
I don’t know when the old Heart of Atlanta Motel was torn down, or when this Hilton was built. I do know this is one of the most strategic locations for a hotel in (forgive the expression) the heart of Atlanta, so when it did go down, it was probably a pretty big deal.