In trying times such as these, when the very leaders of the nation seem to be blind to their own thinly veiled racism, and when that racism seems to garner so much support from our friends and neighbors, it’s important to reflect on liberal values and progressivism. We need to allow ourselves to take some comfort in just how far we’ve come since Martin Luther King, Jr. rallied to the support of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama over 62 years ago.
With that, I want to write a few words about the Heart of Atlanta Motel.
If you ever been in an argument or debate with someone who says a business owner has the right to refuse to bake a gay person a wedding cake, then likely you heard your interlocuter say something like, “a business owner can turn away service to anyone they please!”
Enter the ripple effect of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v the United States is a case I remember reading about when I took Business Law way back in the stone ages, at what was then Kennesaw State College. This case was a civil rights doozy and it gave the US Supreme Court the opportunity to knock some pro-racist arguments out of the park, once and for all.
The background of the case is fairly straightforward. The Civil Rights movement, spearheaded by the man we celebrate every third Monday in January, culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law ended legal segregation based on color. It also created a problem for many racist, white business owners in the South. Among them was the owner of the Heart of Atlanta Motel, because he did not rent his motel rooms to black people.
The owner sued the government claiming Congress overstepped its boundaries by placing motels under the purview of interstate commerce – which of course Congress has the express authority in the US Constitution to regulate. The owner also claimed that he was being forced to suspend his due process rights under the Fifth Amendment, and that by being forced to provide service to black people, he was essentially being forced into slavery which of course violated the Thirteenth Amendment.
Think about his argument. A white business owner being forced to stop discriminating against black people, is slavery. Isn’t that rich? The logic reminds me of some of the bizarre justifications, excuses, and “alternative” facts we hear from Trump’s White House, but I digress.
The Supreme Court dismantled each of the owner’s arguments in the landmark civil rights case, and the slow progressive march toward equality continued.
Keep this case in mind the next time someone says that businesses can refuse service to whoever they want, for any reason. They can’t. That said, I would like to believe there are not enough bigots and racists to keep businesses like the Heart of Atlanta Motel afloat, but sadly we all can see that’s not yet the case.
Despite our progress, we’re not quite there yet. But we are still making progress.