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Civil Rights in Public Accommodations and Facilities: Law and History

There are laws in place to protect Americans from discrimination. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation. Title II protects you from discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • National origin

Federal nondiscrimination laws don't bar discrimination in public accommodations based on gender identity, sexual orientation, or sex. Places of public accommodation protected by Title II include:

  • Hotels and motels
  • Retail establishments and retail stores
  • Restaurants
  • Movie theaters/motion picture houses
  • Stadiums
  • Concert halls
  • Other spaces open to the general public

The struggle for equal treatment in public places began long before this historic legislation was signed into law.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, from Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man. The white man had boarded the bus after Rosa did. At that time, public buses in the South were segregated. Discrimination on the basis of race was rampant. Not only did African Americans have to ride in the back of the bus, but they also had to give up their seats to any white person who wanted to sit. Ms. Parks was arrested and jailed for refusing to give up her seat.

On December 5, 1955, African Americans in Montgomery began a boycott of public buses. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led them. The peaceful boycott continued for 381 days. During that time, 90 percent of the African Americans in Montgomery refused to ride the buses. In the end, the buses in Montgomery were desegregated.

This article discusses civil rights history and law regarding public accommodations.

Public Access Discrimination Before the Civil Rights Act

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, people from minority groups were excluded from, or segregated in, restaurants, motels, theaters, and other places of public accommodations. On February 1, 1960, four African American students went into a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter, and ordered cups of coffee. The waitress refused to serve them coffee unless they stood up to drink it. Only whites were allowed to sit at the lunch counter.

The black students sat at the lunch counter until the store closed but were never served their coffee. The next day they returned with more students. A peaceful protest called a "sit-in" was begun. Across the South, peaceful student sit-ins took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. Although the protesters were beaten and sometimes sent to jail, they continued peacefully sitting in until they achieved their goal of desegregating places of public accommodation.

The Freedom Rides

In 1961, a new phase of the movement to desegregate places of public accommodation began - the Freedom Rides. African Americans were still sitting in the back of the buses in the South. They weren't permitted to use "whites only" restroom facilities in the terminals. This was the case even though the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses (buses that traveled between states) in 1946.

In May 1961, the first group of 13 Freedom Riders left Washington, D.C., and traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana via Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The group was comprised of white and black people ranging in age from college students to a 60-year-old professor and his wife. They went in two buses.

The first bus riders were attacked in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The Freedom Riders on this bus were beaten by men with pipes. The second bus was firebombed just outside of Anniston, Alabama.

At the same time as the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, other protesters demonstrated against segregation in public facilities.

State Law Protection

The sit-ins and protests during the Civil Rights Movement contributed to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This resulted in the legal desegregation of public accommodations and facilities.

There are also state laws prohibiting discrimination based on enumerated factors. These factors include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Creed
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Marital status
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation

These public accommodation laws help to ensure equal access to facilities open to the public. Each state's laws vary. For instance, laws in Illinois or the District of Columbia may differ from New Jersey laws.

Obtain Professional Help from an Attorney

The United States has a sordid history of violating civil rights in public accommodations and public facilities. Have you experienced discriminatory treatment based on a protected characteristic at a public accommodation as opposed to a private club?

Protect your human rights. You might be able to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice or your state attorney general's office. Talk to an experienced civil rights attorney who can help assess your potential claim and bring a civil action in district court if needed.

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