Katzenbach v. McClung

379 U.S. 294 (1964)

Quick Summary

The Supreme Court examined whether Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which aimed to combat racial discrimination in public accommodations, was constitutional under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.

Ollie’s Barbecue (defendant) challenged the law’s application, while Katzenbach (plaintiff) representing the government’s interest, argued in favor. The Court upheld Congress’s authority, stating that racial discrimination in restaurants significantly impacted interstate commerce, thus affirming Title II’s application to Ollie’s Barbecue.

Facts of the Case

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title II, which prohibits racial discrimination in public accommodations was an issue. Ollie’s Barbecue, owned by the McClungs (defendants), was a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, that refused service to African American customers in its dining area.

A significant portion of the food served at Ollie’s Barbecue was procured from out-of-state sources. The McClungs challenged the enforcement of the Act against their establishment, claiming it was unconstitutional.

Katzenbach (plaintiff), then Acting Attorney General, represented the United States government in seeking to enforce the Civil Rights Act against the McClungs. The federal district court initially granted an injunction preventing the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act against Ollie’s Barbecue.

This decision was appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court, which heard the case along with a similar case, Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The McClungs owned Ollie’s Barbecue and refused to serve African American customers in the dining area.
  2. They filed a lawsuit against Katzenbach to prevent enforcement of the Civil Rights Act upon them.
  3. A federal district court issued an injunction in favor of the McClungs.
  4. The United States government appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether Title II of the Civil Rights Act, as applied to a restaurant that receives a substantial amount of food from interstate commerce, is a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

Rule of Law

Congress has the authority to regulate local activities that have a significant effect on interstate commerce under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution, commonly known as the Commerce Clause.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court examined extensive testimony and evidence presented to Congress during hearings on the Civil Rights Act. This evidence suggested that racial discrimination in restaurants placed burdens on interstate commerce by reducing spending by African Americans and discouraging interstate travel.

Additionally, such discrimination was found to have a broader impact on general business conditions and could deter new businesses from entering areas where discrimination occurred. The Court rejected the lower court’s assertion that there was no demonstrable connection between food purchased in interstate commerce and racial discrimination’s impact on commerce.

It emphasized that Congress is not required to wait for a complete disruption of commerce before legislating preventive measures. The Supreme Court found that Congress acted within its power by targeting restaurants serving interstate travelers or serving food that moved in interstate commerce, concluding that Title II was an appropriate means to address a significant national commercial problem.


The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision, upholding the constitutionality of Title II of the Civil Rights Act as applied to Ollie’s Barbecue and similar establishments. Thus, enforcing non-discriminatory practices in places of public accommodation where a substantial portion of food moves in interstate commerce.

Key Takeaways

  1. Congress has broad power under the Commerce Clause to regulate local activities that affect interstate commerce.
  2. Evidence of national economic impact from racial discrimination in restaurants justified Congressional action under Title II of the Civil Rights Act.
  3. The Supreme Court will uphold Congressional action if there is a rational basis for its relation to interstate commerce.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a substantial effect on interstate commerce to justify federal regulation?

A substantial effect on interstate commerce exists when an activity significantly impacts trade and economic activity between states, allowing federal regulation. Congress need not prove a direct effect, but a plausible connection or cumulative impact is sufficient.

  • For example: A federal law that prohibits discrimination in hiring practices across all states can be justified if it can be shown that unfair hiring may deter skilled workers from moving between states, thus affecting the national labor market.

How does Congress demonstrate a rational basis for legislation under the Commerce Clause?

Congress demonstrates a rational basis by providing factual evidence or reasonable assumptions showing that the regulated activity has an economic connection to interstate commerce.

  • For example: If Congress enacts legislation aimed at reducing environmental pollution, it could argue that pollution crosses state borders and negatively impacts agriculture and tourism industries in adjacent states, establishing a rational basis for such regulation.

In what ways can local activities be considered part of interstate commerce?

Local activities can be considered part of interstate commerce if they use goods or services that cross state lines or if they collectively have a broader economic impact that extends beyond the local area.

  • For example: A local gym sourcing exercise equipment from another state may be subject to federal safety standards regulation, as the equipment is part of the flow of interstate commerce.


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