SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
382 U.S. 296
January 17, 1966, Decided
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
In 1911 United States Senator Augustus O. Bacon executed a will that devised to the Mayor and Council of the City of Macon, Georgia, a tract of land which, after the death of the Senator's wife and daughters, was to be used as "a park and pleasure ground" for white people only, the Senator stating in the will that while he had only the kindest feeling for the Negroes he was of the opinion that "in their social relations the two races (white and negro) should be forever separate." The will provided that the park should be under the control of a Board of Managers of seven persons, all of whom were to be white. The city kept the park segregated for some years but in time let Negroes use it, taking the position that the park was a public facility which it could not constitutionally manage and maintain on a segregated basis.
Thereupon, individual members of the Board of Managers of the park brought this suit in a state court against the City of Macon and the trustees of certain residuary beneficiaries of Senator Bacon's estate, asking that the city be removed as trustee and that the court appoint new trustees, to whom title to the park would be transferred. The city answered, alleging it could not legally enforce racial segregation in the park. The other defendants admitted the allegation and requested that the city be removed as trustee.
Several Negro citizens of Macon intervened, alleging that the racial limitation was contrary to the laws and public policy of the United States, and asking that the court refuse to appoint private trustees. Thereafter the city resigned as trustee and amended its answer accordingly. Moreover, other heirs of Senator Bacon intervened and they and the defendants other than the city asked for reversion of the trust property to the Bacon estate in the event that the prayer of the petition were denied.
The Georgia court accepted the resignation of the city as trustee and appointed three individuals as new trustees, finding it unnecessary to pass on the other claims of the heirs. On appeal by the Negro intervenors, the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed, holding that Senator Bacon had the right to give and bequeath his property to a limited class, that charitable trusts are subject to supervision of a court of equity, and that the power to appoint new trustees so that the purpose of the trust would not fail was clear. The case is here on a writ of certiorari.
There are two complementary principles to be reconciled in this case. One is the right of the individual to pick his own associates so as to express his preferences and dislikes, and to fashion his private life by joining such clubs and groups as he chooses. The other is the constitutional ban in the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment against state-sponsored racial inequality, which of course bars a city from acting as trustee under a private will that serves the racial segregation cause. A private golf club, however, restricted to either Negro or white membership is one expression of freedom of association. But a municipal golf course that serves only one race is state activity indicating a preference on a matter as to which the State must be neutral. What is "private" action and what is "state" action is not always easy to determine. Conduct that is formally "private" may become so entwined with governmental policies or so impregnated with a governmental character as to become subject to the constitutional limitations placed upon state action. The action of a city in serving as trustee of property under a private will serving the segregated cause is an obvious example. A town may be privately owned and managed, but that does not necessarily allow the company to treat it as if it were wholly in the private sector. Thus we held in Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501, that the exercise of constitutionally protected rights on the public streets of a company town could not be denied by the owner. A State is not justified, we said, in "permitting a corporation to govern a community of citizens so as to restrict their fundamental liberties . . . ." That is to say, when private individuals or groups are endowed by the State with powers or functions governmental in nature, they become agencies or instrumentalities of the State and subject to its constitutional limitations.
If a testator wanted to leave a school or center for the use of one race only and in no way implicated the State in the supervision, control, or management of that facility, we assume arguendo that no constitutional difficulty would be encountered. This park, however, is in a different posture. For years it was an integral part of the City of Macon's activities. From the pleadings we assume it was swept, manicured, watered, patrolled, and maintained by the city as a public facility for whites only, as well as granted tax exemption under Ga. Code Ann. § 92-201. The momentum it acquired as a public facility is certainly not dissipated ipso facto by the appointment of "private" trustees. So far as this record shows, there has been no change in municipal maintenance and concern over this facility. Whether these public characteristics will in time be dissipated is wholly conjectural. If the municipality remains entwined in the management or control of the park, it remains subject to the restraints of the Fourteenth Amendment. We only hold that where the tradition of municipal control had become firmly established, we cannot take judicial notice that the mere substitution of trustees instantly transferred this park from the public to the private sector.
This conclusion is buttressed by the nature of the service rendered the community by a park. The service rendered even by a private park of this character is municipal in nature. It is open to every white person, there being no selective element other than race. Golf clubs, social centers, luncheon clubs, schools such as Tuskegee was at least in origin, and other like organizations in the private sector are often racially oriented. A park, on the other hand, is more like a fire department or police department that traditionally serves the community. Mass recreation through the use of parks is plainly in the public domain, and state courts that aid private parties to perform that public function on a segregated basis implicate the State in conduct proscribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Like the streets of the company town in Marsh v. Alabama, the elective process of Terry v. Adams, and the transit system of Public Utilities Comm'n v. Pollak, the predominant character and purpose of this park are municipal.
Under the circumstances of this case, we cannot but conclude that the public character of this park requires that it be treated as a public institution subject to the command of the Fourteenth Amendment, regardless of who now has title under state law. We may fairly assume that had the Georgia courts been of the view that even in private hands the park may not be operated for the public on a segregated basis, the resignation would not have been approved and private trustees appointed. We put the matter that way because on this record we cannot say that the transfer of title per se disentangled the park from segregation under the municipal regime that long controlled it.
MR. JUSTICE BLACK, dissenting [omitted].
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom MR. JUSTICE STEWART joins, dissenting.
This decision, in my opinion, is more the product of human impulses, which I fully share, than of solid constitutional thinking. It is made at the sacrifice of long-established and still wise procedural and substantive constitutional principle. I must respectfully dissent.
I do not think that the Fourteenth Amendment permits this Court in effect to frustrate the terms of Senator Bacon's will, now that the City of Macon is no longer connected, so far as the record shows, with the administration of Baconsfield.
The Equal Protection Clause reaches only discriminations that are the product of capricious state action; it does not touch discriminations whose origins and effectuation arise solely out of individual predilections, prejudices, and acts. So far as the Fourteenth Amendment is concerned the curtailing of private discriminatory acts, to the extent they may be forbidden at all, is a matter that is left to the States acting within the permissible range of their police power.
From all that now appears, this is a case of "private discrimination." Baconsfield had its origin not in any significant governmental action or on any public land but rather in the personal social philosophy of Senator Bacon and on property owned by him. The City of Macon's acceptance and, until recent years, its carrying out of the trusteeship were both entirely legitimate, and indeed in accord with the prevailing mores of the times. When continuance of its trusteeship became incompatible with later changes in constitutional doctrine, the city first undertook to disregard the racial restrictions imposed by the will on the use of the park, and then when that action was appropriately challenged, resigned as trustee. The state courts, obedient to federal commands, have accepted the resignation of the city, and, to prevent failure of the trust under their own laws, have appointed new trustees. I can see nothing in this straightforward train of events which justifies finding "state action" of the kind necessary to bring the Fourteenth Amendment into play.
The first ground for the majority's state action holding rests on nothing but an assumption and a conjecture. The assumption is that the city itself maintained Baconsfield in the past. The conjecture is that it will continue to be connected with the administration of the park in the future. The only underpinning for the assumption is the circumstance that over the years Baconsfield has geographically become an adjunct to the city's park system and the admitted fact that until the present proceeding, title to it was vested in the city as trustee. The only predicate for the majority's conjecture as to the future is the failure of the record to show the contrary.
If speculation is the test, the record more readily supports contrary inferences. Papers before us indicate that Senator Bacon left other property in trust precisely in order to maintain Baconsfield. Why should it be assumed that these resources were not used in the past for that purpose, still less that the new trustees, now faced with a challenge as to their right to effectuate the terms of Senator Bacon's trust, will not keep Baconsfield privately maintained in all respects? Further, the city's and state courts' readiness to sever ties between the city and park in derogation of the will, let alone the city's earlier operation of the park on a nonsegregated basis despite the terms of the will, strongly indicates that they will not flinch from completing the separation of park and state if any ties remain to implicate the Fourteenth Amendment.
Quite evidently uneasy with its first ground of decision, the majority advances another which ultimately emerges as the real holding. This ground derives from what is asserted to be the "public character " of Baconsfield and the "municipal . . . nature" of its services. Here it is not suggested that Baconsfield will use public property or funds, be managed by the city, enjoy an exclusive franchise, or even operate under continuing supervision of a public regulatory agency. State action is inherent in the operation of Baconsfield quite independently of any such factors, so it seems to be said, because a privately operated park whose only criterion for exclusion is racial is within the "public domain".
The only Fourteenth Amendment case n5 finding state action in the "public function" performed by a technically private institution is Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501, holding that a company-owned town of over 1,500 residents and effectively integrated into the surrounding area could not suppress free speech on its streets in disregard of constitutional safeguards. While no stronger case for the "public function" theory can be imagined, the majority opinion won only five of the eight Justices participating, one of whom also concurred separately, and three spoke out in dissent. The doctrine of that case has not since been the basis of other decisions in this Court and certainly it has not been extended.
More serious than the absence of any firm doctrinal support for this theory of state action are its potentialities for the future. Its failing as a principle of decision in the realm of Fourteenth Amendment concerns can be shown by comparing -- among other examples that might be drawn from the still unfolding sweep of governmental functions -- the "public function" of privately established schools with that of privately owned parks. Like parks, the purpose schools serve is important to the public. Like parks, private control exists, but there is also a very strong tradition of public control in this field. Like parks, schools may be available to almost anyone of one race or religion but to no others. Like parks, there are normally alternatives for those shut out but there may also be inconveniences and disadvantages caused by the restriction. Like parks, the extent of school intimacy varies greatly depending on the size and character of the institution.
For all the resemblance, the majority assumes that its decision leaves unaffected the traditional view that the Fourteenth Amendment does not compel private schools to adapt their admission policies to its requirements, but that such matters are left to the States acting within constitutional bounds. I find it difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion that this decision opens the door to reversal of these basic constitutional concepts, and, at least in logic, jeopardizes the existence of denominationally restricted schools while making of every college entrance rejection letter a potential Fourteenth Amendment question.
While this process of analogy might be spun out to reach privately owned orphanages, libraries, garbage collection companies, detective agencies, and a host of other functions commonly regarded as nongovernmental though paralleling fields of governmental activity, the example of schools is, I think, sufficient to indicate the pervasive potentialities of this "public function" theory of state action. It substitutes for the comparatively clear and concrete tests of state action a catch-phrase approach as vague and amorphous as it is far-reaching. It dispenses with the sound and careful principles of past decisions in this realm. And it carries the seeds of transferring to federal authority vast areas of concern whose regulation has wisely been left by the Constitution to the States.