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Buchanan v. Warley

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Significance: Emphasizing property rights, the Supreme Court struck down state laws that mandated racial segregation in housing.


Early in the twentieth century, many southern cities enacted ordinances that mandated residential segregation. Louisville, Kentucky, prohibited both African Americans and European Americans from living on blocks where the majority of residents were persons of the other race. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People arranged a sale of property to test the law. Although the Supreme Court had consistently sanctioned segregation, it ruled unanimously that the Louisville ordinance was unconstitutional. In his opinion for the Court, Justice William R. Day stated that the ordinance was an unreasonable restriction on the liberty of all people to buy and sell property, as protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision showed that the protection of property rights and economic liberty could sometimes have the effect of promoting civil equality. The Buchanan decision, however, was of limited impact for two reasons. First, it did not question the constitutionality of de jure racial segregation in areas such as education and transportation. Second, many private citizens began to enter into racially restrictive contracts, which were not rendered unenforceable until Shelley v. Kraemer (1948).