Watson v. City of Memphis
373 U.S. 526 (1963)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Watson v. City of Memphis, 373 U.S. 526 (1963)

Watson v. City of Memphis

No. 424

Argued April 17-18, 1963

Decided May 27, 1963

373 U.S. 526


In 1960, petitioners, Negro residents of Memphis, Tenn., sued in a Federal District Court for declaratory and injunctive relief directing immediate desegregation of public parks and other publicly owned or operated recreational facilities from which Negroes were still excluded. The City denied neither the fact that the majority of the relevant facilities were operated on a segregated basis nor its duty under the Fourteenth Amendment to terminate its policy of conditioning use of such facilities on race. Instead, it pointed to the partial desegregation already effected and attempted to justify its further delay in conforming fully to constitutional mandates by urging the need and wisdom of proceeding slowly and gradually in its desegregation efforts. There was no evidence that there had been any violence or meaningful disturbances when other recreational facilities had been desegregated, and there was evidence that such prior transitions had been peaceful. The District Court denied the relief sought and ordered the City to submit within six months a plan providing additional time for desegregation of the relevant facilities.

Held: the continued denial to petitioners of the use of city facilities solely because of their race is without warrant, and prompt vindication of their rights is required. Pp. 373 U. S. 528-539.

(a) In considering the appropriateness of the equitable decree entered below inviting a plan calling for an even longer delay in effecting desegregation, this Court cannot ignore the passage of a substantial period of time since the original declaration of the manifest unconstitutionality of racial practices such as are here challenged, the repeated and numerous decisions giving notice of such illegality, and the many intervening opportunities heretofore available to attain the equality of treatment which the Fourteenth Amendment commands the States to achieve. Pp. 373 U. S. 529-530.

(b) This Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U. S. 294, never contemplated that the concept of "deliberate speed" would countenance indefinite delay in elimination of racial barriers

Page 373 U. S. 527

in public schools, let alone other public facilities not involving the same physical problems or comparable conditions. P. 373 U. S. 530.

(c) Desegregation of parks and other recreational facilities does not present the same kinds of cognizable difficulties inhering in elimination of racial classification in schools, at which attendance is compulsory, the adequacy of teachers and facilities crucial, and questions of geographic assignment often of major significance. Pp. 373 U. S. 530-532.

(d) Even the delay countenanced by Brown was a necessary, albeit significant, adaptation of the usual principle that any deprivation of constitutional rights calls for prompt rectification.c The rights here asserted are, like all such rights, present rights, and unless there is an overwhelmingly compelling reason, they are to be promptly fulfilled. Pp. 373 U. S. 532-533.

(e) The claims of the City to further delay in affording the petitioners that to which they are clearly and unquestionably entitled cannot be upheld except upon the most convincing and impressive demonstration by the City that such delay is manifestly compelled by constitutionally cognizable circumstances warranting the exercise of an appropriate equitable discretion by a court. P. 373 U. S. 533.

(f) Constitutional rights may not be denied simply because of hostility to their assertion or exercise. Pp. 373 U. S. 535-536.

(g) The City has failed to demonstrate any compelling or convincing reason requiring further delay in implementing the constitutional proscription of segregation of publicly owned or operated recreational facilities. Pp. 373 U. S. 534-539.

303 F. 2d 863, reversed.

Page 373 U. S. 528

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