Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.
That the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which protected black citizens from several different forms of discrimination, applied not only to actions taken by the government or sanctioned by the government, but to actions taken by private individuals as well.
The Alfred H. Mayer Company was developing a subdivision called Paddock Woods in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. The plaintiffs went to look at a house, and some time later contacted the developers again and inquired about the price and the possibility of buying. At that time they were informed that the company had a general policy of not selling to blacks, which Joseph Lee Jones, one of the potential buyers, was. On 2 September 1965 the plaintiffs filed suit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, seeking injunctive and declarative relief. A large part of their case relied upon Section 1982 of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which purported to protect for blacks many of the rights enjoyed by white men, including the right to buy and sell property. The district court dismissed the claim on the grounds that Supreme Court decisions had held that Section 1982 only applied to state actions and not to private actions, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear the case, and it was argued on the first two days of April, 1968.
The debate before the Supreme Court centered around both the language and the congressional debate preceding the passage of Section 1982. The issue was quite simple: If that section applied to private action, the decisions of the lower courts must be overturned and the plaintiff, now petitioner, would be allowed to sue. If it applied only to state action, the motion would be denied and the case would be null and void. The Court decided that the section did apply to private action, setting a new precedent, striking a blow for civil rights in housing laws, and sparking a spirited and lengthy dissent from Justice Harlan.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Stewart, was in five parts. The first part simply stated that the ruling did not amount to a comprehensive housing law, and was limited in scope to cases fairly identical to the Jones case. It also stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1968, just recently passed, did not directly address the precise situation involved in the case and did not render the case irrelevant.
The second part of the opinion concerned precedent, the most directly applicable being that of the Hurd v. Hodge case in 1948, which concerned a very similar situation. In that case, however, a federal district court had enforced the restrictive covenants in question. The High Court in that case had overruled the lower court decision, ruling that the district court's enforcement of the racial covenants amounted to state action concerning the covenant, thus bringing 1982 into effect. In that case, however, the black purchasers already had deeds and the court had declared them void; in Jones the lower courts had declined to take action, so a new precedent would need to be set.