The “Green Book” and Public Accommodation Discrimination

I just saw the movie “The Green Book,” which chronicles the early 1960’s travels of musician Donald Shirley and his driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga. Throughout the movie, Mr. Shirley is subjected to blatant race discrimination (by, for example, not being allowed to eat in the same room as white patrons. The movie is set in 1962, prior to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which – in addition to prohibiting employment discrimination based on race – also prohibits, inter alia, race discrimination in places of public accommodation.

In¬†Katzenbach v. McClung, 85 S.Ct. 377, 384, 379 U.S. 294, 304 (U.S.Ala. 1964) – the “Ollie’s Barbecue Case” – the Supreme Court held that the Birmingham, Alabama restaurant in question was subject to Congressional regulation on the ground that if affected interstate commerce.

From the Opinion:

[W]e must conclude that it had a rational basis for finding that racial discrimination in restaurants had a direct and adverse effect on the free flow of interstate commerce. Insofar as the sections of the Act here relevant are concerned …, Congress prohibited discrimination only in those establishments having a close tie to interstate commerce, i.e., those, like the McClungs’, serving food that has come from out of the State. We think in so doing that Congress acted well within its power to protect and foster commerce in extending the coverage of Title II only to those restaurants offering to serve interstate travelers or serving food, a substantial portion of which has moved in interstate commerce.

Today, of course, we take for granted that restaurants may not segregate or discriminate based on race. But we should remember that reaching this point was and remains a hard-fought battle.

The movie, by the way, was excellent.