Katzenbach v. McClung – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294, 85 S. Ct. 377, 13 L. Ed. 2d 290 (1964).


The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited restaurants that obtained food through interstate commerce from discriminating against customers based on race. McClung (P) owned Ollie’s Barbecue in Birmingham, Alabama, which provided take out service to black customers but allowed only white customers to dine on the premises. While the clientele was local, a substantial portion of the food served by the restaurant moved in interstate commerce.

McClung and other plaintiffs brought this lawsuit to enjoin United States Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach from enforcing Title II of the Act against his restaurant on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

At trial, the three judge district court granted an injunction, holding that there was no demonstrable connection between the serving in a restaurant of food that had moved in interstate commerce, and Congress’s assertion that the effect of discrimination by restaurants on interstate commerce warranted regulation of local activity. The court held that the meaning of “interstate commerce” as it applies to the Commerce Clause was the movement of persons, goods, or information from one state to another. The court found that the Commerce Clause granted Congress the power to regulate intrastate activity only to the extent that it is necessary or appropriate for the effective execution of its power to regulate interstate commerce.

The district court concluded that Congress had merely legislated a conclusive presumption that race based discrimination by restaurants affects interstate commerce if it serves interstate travelers or if it provides food that has traveled in interstate commerce. The district court ruled that Congress had not satisfied the requirement that it find facts sufficient to show that regulation was necessary or appropriate for the effective execution of its authority under the Commerce Clause.

The appellate court affirmed and the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


Does Congress have the power under the Commerce Clause to regulate local business activity if any part of it affects interstate commerce, if the aggregate of activity of that industry has a substantial effect on interstate commerce?

Holding and Rule (Clark)

Yes. The Commerce Clause grants Congress the power to regulate local business activity if any part of it affects interstate commerce, if the aggregate of activity of that industry has a substantial effect on interstate commerce.

Congress acted within its power to protect interstate commerce in extending coverage of Title II of the Civil Rights Act to restaurants serving food moving in interstate commerce. Congress had had ample basis to conclude that discrimination based on race by such restaurants burdens interstate trade.

In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Supreme Court found that the Act was a valid exercise of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce in prohibiting hotels from discriminating against customer based on race.

The commerce power is broad and it gives Congress the authority to regulate activity with only a minor impact on interstate commerce. Both Houses of Congress conducted prolonged hearings on the Act and the record is replete with testimony of the burdens placed on interstate commerce by racial discrimination in restaurants. A comparison of per capita spending by black patrons in restaurants, theaters, and other establishments indicated less spending in areas where discrimination is widely practiced. While McClung’s impact on interstate commerce may be insignificant when viewed in isolation, the aggregate effect has a significant impact and is subject to regulation.



Concurring (Black)

In order for Congress to regulate, the threat to commerce must be real and direct as in this case and not remote or speculative. An isolated incident does not apply unless it has a significant effect in the aggregate.

Concurring (Douglas)

The court could have reached the same decision under the Fourteenth Amendment and should not base its decision on the Commerce Clause alone.

Concurring (Goldberg)

The court should have based its ruling on the Fourteenth Amendment.

See Brown v. Board of Education for constitutional law case brief involving issues relating to racial discrimination, segregation, and the Fourteenth Amendment.

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