The Supreme Court: Beyond a Doubt

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The U.S. Supreme Court proved last week that, when faced with a matter of truly national urgency, it can make up its mind in a hurry. Little more than five months after enactment of the most far-reaching civil rights act in U.S. history, the court unanimously declared that a key section of that act was constitutional. It thus removed the last doubt about the right of Negroes to equal access to public accommodations anywhere in the nation.

In a legal sense, the court's decision merely reaffirmed a rule of 140 years' standing, holding that the Constitution's commerce clause gives Congress sweeping powers to regulate any activity that even remotely affects commerce among the states. But its potential impact upon U.S. race relations was nonetheless momentous. A Negro can now travel anywhere, stop at any hotel or cafe and be certain that the law, at least, insists that he be served.

"No Limitations." In an opinion written by one of its two Southerners, Texan Tom C. Clark, the court dismissed arguments by Georgia's Heart of Atlanta Motel and Ollie's Barbecue in Birmingham, Ala., that they could not be compelled to accommodate Negroes under the guise of regulating commerce.

Clark noted that ever since 1824 the courts have consistently upheld a rule by Chief Justice John Marshall in a famous case (Gibbons v. Ogden, involving steamboat traffic between New York and New Jersey) that the commerce clause gives Congress a power "complete in itself" that may "be exercised to its utmost extent, and acknowledges no limitations, other than are prescribed in the Constitution." The only real test of that power, wrote Clark, is "whether the activity sought to be regulated is commerce which concerns more than one state and has a real and substantial relation to the national interest."

Clark cited testimony before congressional committees which showed that racial discrimination is a nationwide problem, that Negroes are so uncertain of finding accommodations when traveling that it impairs their "pleasure and convenience" and has "the effect of discouraging travel on the part of a substantial portion" of the nation's 20 million Negroes. Observed Clark acidly: "One can hardly travel without eating."

The fact that the main intent of Congress in passing the act was to deal with "what it considered a moral wrong," does not affect its validity under the commerce clause, Clark ruled. In past cases, such as those involving laws against white slavery and gambling, the court has upheld commerce-clause regulations that had more of a moral than an economic intent. Nor is the size of a specific activity relevant. Thus in 1942 the court upheld the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 as applied to a farmer who sowed only 23 acres of wheat to feed his own cattle. The combined output of many small farmers, said the court, affects the total flow of interstate commerce.

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