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5 Key Cases Since MLK's 'I Have a Dream' Speech

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on January 11, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired millions with his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, hoping that one day people would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

In the nearly five decades since King's "Dream" speech, the U.S. Supreme Court has grappled with the issue of racial discrimination in a series of cases. Here are five important decisions that reflect King's call for change.

Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964)

The Atlanta Motel case challenged the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations. The motel's owner refused to rent rooms to blacks, and claimed Congress exceeded its authority in enacting the Civil Rights Act.

But as 75% of the hotel's clientele came from out of state, the U.S. Supreme Court found that barring blacks interfered with interstate travel and commerce. The Constitution's Commerce Clause gives Congress the power to address the issue, the Court held. The decision forced the motel to cater to clients of all races.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)

The Loving decision struck down as unconstitutional state laws that prohibited interracial marriage. Virginia was one of those states, so an interracial Virginia couple -- a black woman and a white man -- exchanged vows in Washington, D.C., instead. When they returned to Virginia, they were arrested and convicted of miscegenation.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Lovings' convictions, and held Virginia's law violated both the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause. Sixteen states were forced to change laws that barred interracial marriage.

Washington v. Davis (1976)

More than a decade after Martin Luther King's "Dream" speech, two black police candidates claimed Washington, D.C.'s civil service exam was racially discriminatory because black candidates failed the exam at a much higher rate than whites. They wanted D.C. to stop using the exam.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the rejected candidates. Though the exam may have led to more blacks being rejected, the Court held that wasn't enough for it to be unconstitutional -- there also had to be a discriminatory purpose behind the test. The Court found no discriminatory purpose, in part because D.C.'s police department had actively tried to recruit blacks.

Batson v. Kentucky (1986)

The Batson case challenged a black man's burglary conviction on the grounds that blacks were deliberately weeded out of the jury. The U.S. Supreme Court held that purposely excluding a racial group from a jury is an equal protection violation.

The legacy of Batson lives on. Today, lawyers can use a "Batson challenge" to claim that a certain group of potential jurors is being unfairly excluded in the jury-selection process.

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)

The Grutter decision upheld the use of affirmative action in a law school's admissions policy. A white law school candidate claimed the policy was racially discriminatory, alleging it used race as a "predominant" factor in decisions.

But the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the school's use of race as one of many factors to be considered, so long as the overall admissions process showed a "highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file." However, the Court's opinion also predicted an end to the use of race in admissions, perhaps in as little as 25 years.

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