MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.
In this case we are called upon to determine the scope and the constitutionality of an Act of Congress, 42 U.S.C. 1982, which provides that: "All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property."
On September 2, 1965, the petitioners filed a complaint in the District
Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, alleging that the respondents
had refused to sell them a home in the Paddock Woods community of St. Louis
County for the sole reason that petitioner Joseph Lee Jones is a Negro.
Relying in part upon 1982, the petitioners sought injunctive and other
relief. The District Court sustained the respondents' motion to dismiss
the complaint, and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed,
concluding that 1982 applies only to state action and does not reach private
refusals to sell. We granted certiorari to consider the
questions thus presented. For the reasons that follow, we
reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals. We hold that 1982 bars all
racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental
of property, and that the statute, thus construed, is a valid exercise
of the power of Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment.
On its face, therefore, 1982 appears to prohibit all discrimination
against Negroes in the sale or rental of property - discrimination by private
owners as well as discrimination by public authorities. Indeed, even the
respondents seem to concede that, if 1982 "means what it says" - to use
the words of the respondents' brief - then it must encompass every racially
sell or rent and cannot be confined to officially sanctioned segregation
in housing. Stressing what they consider to be the revolutionary implications
of so literal a reading of 1982, the respondents argue that Congress cannot
possibly have intended any such result. Our examination of the relevant
history, however, persuades us that Congress meant exactly what it said.
That broad language, we are asked to believe, was a mere slip of the legislative pen. We disagree. For the same Congress that wanted to do away with the Black Codes also had before it an imposing body of evidence pointing to the mistreatment of Negroes by private individuals and unofficial groups, mistreatment unrelated to any hostile state legislation. "Accounts in newspapers North and South, Freedmen's Bureau and other official documents, private reports and correspondence were all adduced" to show that "private outrage and atrocity" were "daily inflicted on freedmen . . . ." The congressional debates are replete with references to private injustices against Negroes - references to white employers who refused to pay their Negro workers, white planters who agreed among themselves not to hire freed slaves without the permission of their former masters, white citizens who assaulted Negroes or who combined to drive them out of their communities.
Indeed, one of the most comprehensive studies then before Congress stressed the prevalence of private hostility toward Negroes and the need to protect them from the resulting persecution and discrimination.....The report concluded that, even if anti-Negro legislation were "repealed in all the States lately in rebellion," equal treatment for the Negro would not yet be secured....
As we said in a somewhat different setting two Terms ago, "We think that history leaves no doubt that, if we are to give [the law] the scope that its origins dictate, we must accord it a sweep as broad as its language." "We are not at liberty to seek ingenious analytical instruments," to carve from 1982 an exception for private conduct - even though its application to such conduct in the present context is without established precedent. And, as the Attorney General of the United States said at the oral argument of this case, "The fact that the statute lay partially dormant for many years cannot be held to diminish its force today."
Thus, the fact that 1982 operates upon the unofficial acts of private individuals, whether or not sanctioned by state law, presents no constitutional problem. If Congress has power under the Thirteenth Amendment to eradicate conditions that prevent Negroes from buying and renting property because of their race or color, then no federal statute calculated to achieve that objective can be thought to exceed the constitutional power of Congress simply because it reaches beyond state action to regulate the conduct of private individuals. The constitutional question in this case, therefore, comes to this: Does the authority of Congress to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment "by appropriate legislation" include the power to eliminate all racial barriers to the acquisition of real and personal property? We think the answer to that question is plainly yes.
Negro citizens, North and South, who saw in the Thirteenth Amendment a promise of freedom - freedom to "go and come at pleasure" and to "buy and sell when they please" - would be left with "a mere paper guarantee" if Congress were powerless to assure that a dollar in the hands of a Negro will purchase the same thing as a dollar in the hands of a white man. At the very least, the freedom that Congress is empowered to secure under the Thirteenth Amendment includes the freedom to buy whatever a white man can buy, the right to live wherever a white man can live. If Congress cannot say that being a free man means at least this much, then the Thirteenth Amendment made a promise the Nation cannot keep....
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom MR. JUSTICE WHITE joins, dissenting.
The decision in this case appears to me to be most ill-considered and ill-advised.
The petitioners argue that the respondents' racially motivated refusal to sell them a house entitles them to judicial relief on two separate grounds. First, they claim that the respondents acted in violation of 42 U.S.C. 1982; second, they assert that the respondents' conduct amounted in the circumstances to "state action" and was therefore forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment even in the absence of any statute. The Court, without reaching the second ground alleged, holds that the petitioners are entitled to relief under 42 U.S.C. 1982, and that 1982 is constitutional as legislation appropriate to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment.
For reasons which follow, I believe that the Court's construction of 1982 as applying to purely private action is almost surely wrong, and at the least is open to serious doubt....
The foregoing, I think, amply demonstrates that the Court has chosen to resolve this case by according to a loosely worded statute a meaning which is open to the strongest challenge in light of the statute's legislative history. In holding that the Thirteenth Amendment is sufficient constitutional authority for 1982 as interpreted, the Court also decides a question of great importance. Even contemporary supporters of the aims of the 1866 Civil Rights Act doubted that those goals could constitutionally be achieved under the Thirteenth Amendment, and this Court has twice expressed similar doubts....
Exploring Constitutional Conflicts