Getting to the heart of the matter

By David Hejmanowski

February 27, 2014

“I don’t think the people of the south will ever like it, but we’ll have to become accustomed to it.”

­—Moreton Rolleston Jr., TV interview, 1964

“How obstructions in commerce may be removed-what means are to be employed-is within the sound and exclusive discretion of the Congress.”

—Justice Tom C. Clark, Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S.

One of the major news stories of the week involved the passage of Arizona SB 1062 and Governor Jan Brewer’s eventual veto of the bill on Wednesday evening. Proponents of the bill said that it preserved religious freedom by permitting business owners to cite legitimate religious beliefs in determining who to do business with. Opponents said that the bill was nothing more than legislating discrimination.

Lost in all of that discussion was the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court on the very issue of whether businesses that cater to the public may refuse to serve certain classes of potential customers. At the time, the nation was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy just months earlier. Congress had just passed, and President Johnson had just signed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Into the social fray stepped the Heart of Atlanta Motel.

The Motel was a sprawling 216 room resort owned by Georgia attorney Moreton Rolleston Jr. Rolleston was a staunch segregationist and he was outraged by the adoption of the Civil Rights Act. Color postcards of the hotel show a large building with a central, luxurious swimming pool. A sign out front advertises that the hotel has air conditioning and telephones in each room. One postcard from 1960 shows a woman lounging upon a speedboat that has been placed in the motel’s pool.

Upon passage of the act, Rolleston immediately filed suit, challenging the authority of Congress to regulate the acts of private businesses. His case was eventually combined with a similar suit filed by Pickrick Restaurant owner Lester Maddox, who would later serve as Governor of Georgia. Their claim was not related to religious freedom but rather, was a challenge to the authority of Congress, under the Commerce Clause, to prohibit the kind of discrimination that Rolleston and others had been engaged in.

The federal district court for the northern district of Georgia ruled in favor of the United States and ordered Rolleston, Maddox and other business owners to immediately comply with the Civil Rights Act while the case made its way through the federal court system. Just months after the case began, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 9-0 decision penned by Justice Tom C. Clark, upholding the Civil Rights Act.

In his decision, Justice Clark stated, “The power of Congress over interstate commerce is not confined to the regulation of commerce among the states. It extends to those activities intrastate which so affect interstate commerce or the exercise of the power of Congress over it as to make regulation of them appropriate means to the attainment of a legitimate end, the exercise of the granted power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce.” In other words, because places like hotels and restaurants are intended to serve travelers involved in interstate commerce, Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause to regulate them.

The motel continued in business and complied with the Civil Rights Act. It was eventually razed and replaced by a Hilton Hotel. Interestingly, Rolleston was later embroiled in a protracted civil case that led him to sue actor/producer Tyler Perry, who had come to own land on which Rolleston’s private residence had once been situated. Rolleston’s behavior in that lawsuit led him to be disbarred by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2007, when he was 89 years old. He passed away last August at the age of 95.

The expansion of Congress’ Commerce Clause power remains a hot topic to this day. You can find a plethora of information about the Heart of Atlanta case online, including a 1964 television interview of Moreton Rolleston conducted immediately after the Supreme Court ruling.

David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator at the Delaware County Probate/Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.