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Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority

Citation. :365 U.S. 715 (1961)
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Brief Fact Summary.

The petitioner complains that the restaurant located in a parking building owned by the respondent refused to refused to serve appellant food or drink solely because he is a Negro, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When a State leases public property in the manner and for the purpose shown to have been discriminatory, the proscriptions of the Fourteenth Amendment must be complied with the lessee as though they were binding covenants written into the agreement itself.


The Eagle Coffer Shoppe, Inc., a restaurant located within an off-street automobile parking building in Wilmington, Delaware, has refused to serve appellant food or drink solely because he is a Negro. The parking building is owned and operated by the Wilmington Parking Authority, an agency of the State of Delaware, and the restaurant is the Authority’s lessee. The Supreme Court of Delaware held that Eagle was acting in a purely private capacity under its lease; that its action was not that of the Authority and was not state action within the contemplation of the prohibitions contained in the Fourteenth Amendment.


Is Wilmington Parking Authority subject to the violation of the Constitution when it allowed its lessee-restaurant to refuse to serve appellant food or drink solely because he is a Negro?


No, considering all the activities, obligations, responsibilities of the Authority, the benefits mutually conferred, together with the obvious fact that the restaurant is operated as an integral part of a public building devoted to a public parking service, the degree of state participation and involvement in discriminatory action was the action that the Fourteenth Amendment seeks to prohibit. Therefore, the Authority’s inaction to enter into an agreement with its lessee not to discriminate on its leased property has violated the Fourteenth Amendment.


Justice Harlan

The Court’s opinion, by a process of first undiscriminatingly throwing together various facts and then undermining the resulting structure by an equally vague disclaimer, fails to catch what state action requires.


Justice Stewart

In upholding Eagle’s right to deny service to the appellant solely because of his race, the Supreme Court of Delaware relied on a statute of Delaware that permits the proprietor of a restaurant to refuse to serve persons whose reception by him would be offensive to the major part of his customers. There is no suggestion in the record that the appellant as an individual was such a person. Thus, the Delaware Court, in effect, has construed the legislation as authorizing discriminatory classification based exclusively on color, which is prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment.


It is irony amounting to grave injustice that in one part of a single building, erected and maintained with public funds by an agency of the State to serve a public purpose, all persons have equal rights, while in another portion, also serving the public, a Negro is a second-class citizen, offensive because of his race, without rights and unentitled to service, but at the same time fully enjoys equal access to nearby restaurants wholly owned by private individuals. In its lease with Eagle, the Authority could have affirmatively required Eagle to discharge the responsibilities under the Fourteenth Amendment imposed upon the private enterprise as a consequence of state participation. But no State may effectively abdicate its responsibilities by either ignoring them or by merely failing to discharge them whatever the motive may be. By its inaction, the Authority, and through in the State, has not only made itself a party to the refusal of service, but elected to place its power, property and prestige behind the admitted discrimination.

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