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Shelley v. Kraemer

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Significance: Although it allowed private individuals to make racially restrictive covenants, this ruling meant that such covenants were worthless because they could not be legally enforced.


In Buchanan v. Warley (1917), the Supreme Court had ruled that laws requiring residential segregation were unconstitutional. In Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), however, the Court upheld the right of individuals to make private contracts not to sell or rent property to African Americans and members of other racial or ethnic groups. By the end of World War II (1941-1945), such covenants were being enforced in several northern cities. After J. D. Shelley, an African American with six children, purchased a St. Louis house that was under a racial covenant, his neighbors went to court to have the covenant enforced. Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, lead counsels for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued Shelley's case before the Court. In making its 6-0 ruling, the Court did not directly overturn Corrigan, but it emphasized the traditional distinction between private acts (not restricted by the Fourteenth Amendment) and state actions (limited by the Fourteenth Amendment). The judicial enforcement of the contracts was seen as an official action that violated the principles of equal protection. Justice Fred M. Vinson's opinion for the Court emphasized that one of the purposes of the amendment was to prohibit the state from engaging in racial discrimination “in the enjoyment of property rights.” Shelley was expanded in Barrows v. Jackson (1953), which denied the right of a party to a restrictive covenant to recover damages from a party in violation of the covenant. Although often criticized, Shelley v. Kraemer destroyed one of the important instruments used to promote residential segregation. It was therefore an early victory for the Civil Rights movement. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 provided statutory guidance for many of the questions raised in the ruling. In subsequent cases, the Court continued to recognize Shelley's distinction between state action and private conduct.