Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Constitution

This week we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964. 

The Act prohibits state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on the basis of race; it expands the Commission on Civil Rights; it prevents race discrimination in any program receiving federal funding (including private colleges that receive federal money); and it prohibits race discrimination in public accommodations (such as hotels, retail stores, etc.).

The Act has been constitutionally justified under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and under Article One’s Interstate Commerce Clause. Specifically, the public accommodations portion of the Act was defended legally under the Commerce Clause; the Fourteenth Amendment supported the rest of the Act. The Commerce Clause authorizes the federal government to regulate commerce between and among the several states. The Fourteenth Amendment, among other things, prohibits states from treating people differently on the basis of race.

Let us focus on the public accommodations part of the Act.

Congress, in the wake of the Civil War, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This Act focused on banning race discrimination in public accommodations. The Supreme Court struck down this law in 1883 claiming Congress exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth Amendment to regulate private, as opposed to state-imposed, discrimination. 

Due to this 1883 decision, the federal government, after the passage of the CRA of 1964, chose to find a different provision in the Constitution that would authorize the federal government to combat race discrimination by owners of establishments open to the public. The provision that the government found was the Interstate Commerce Clause.

It worked. When the Act was challenged in 1964, the Supreme Court upheld the public accommodations portion of the Act finding that it was valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause. 

This decision today is widely accepted. There is no growing movement in the country to repeal the Act. Politicians in both major parties embrace the law. Still, when the Act comes up in legal circles, there are some who feel that it was unnecessary to drag Interstate Commerce Clause into this discussion when there was, perhaps, a more straightforward way of addressing the issue of race discrimination in public accommodations.

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