451 U.S. 100 (1981), 79-1176, City of Memphis v. Greene

Docket Nº:No. 79-1176
Citation:451 U.S. 100, 101 S.Ct. 1584, 67 L.Ed.2d 769
Party Name:City of Memphis v. Greene
Case Date:April 20, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

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451 U.S. 100 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 1584, 67 L.Ed.2d 769

City of Memphis



No. 79-1176

United States Supreme Court

April 20, 1981

Argued December 3, 1980




The city of Memphis decided to close the north end of a street (West Drive) that traverses a white residential community (Hein Park), the area to the north of which is predominantly black. West Drive is one of three streets that enter Hein Park from the north. The stated reasons for the closing were to reduce the flow of traffic using Hein Park streets, to increase safety to children who live in Hein Park or use it to walk to school, and to reduce "traffic pollution" in the residential area. Respondents, residents of the predominantly black area, and two civic associations brought a class action in Federal District Court against the city and various officials, alleging that the street closing violated 42 U.S.C. § 1982 -- which entitles all citizens to "have the same right . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens . . . to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property" -- and also violated the Thirteenth Amendment, as constituting "a badge of slavery." Ultimately, the District Court entered judgment for the defendants, holding that the street closing did not create a benefit for white citizens which was denied black citizens, that racially discriminatory intent or purpose had not been proved, and that the city had not departed significantly from [101 S.Ct. 1587] normal procedures in authorizing the closing. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding that the street closing was invalid because it adversely affected respondents' ability to hold and enjoy their property. The court concluded that relief under § 1982 was required by the facts (1) that the closing would benefit a white neighborhood and adversely affect blacks; (2) that a barrier was to be erected at the point of separation of the white and black neighborhoods and would have the effect of limiting contact between them; (3) that the closing was not part of a city-wide plan, but rather was a "unique step to protect one neighborhood from outside influences which the residents considered to be `undesirable"'; and (4) that there was evidence of economic depreciation in the property values in the predominantly black area.


1. The record and the District Court's findings do not support the Court of Appeals' conclusions. Pp. 110-119.

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2. The street closing did not violate § 1982. The evidence failed to show that the street closing would prevent blacks from exercising the same property rights as whites, that it depreciated the value of blacks' property, or that it severely restricted access to black homes. Rather, the record discloses that respondents' only injury is the requirement that one street rather than another must be used for certain trips within the city. Such an injury does not involve any impairment to the kind of property interests identified as being within the reach of § 1982. Pp. 120-124.

3. Nor did the street closing violate the Thirteenth Amendment. A review of the justification for the closing demonstrates that its disparate impact on black citizens could not be fairly characterized as a badge or incident of slavery. The record discloses no discriminatory motive on the city's part, but rather that the interests of safety and tranquility that motivated the closing are legitimate. Such interests are sufficient to justify an adverse impact on motorists who are somewhat inconvenienced by the street closing. That inconvenience cannot be equated to an actual restraint on liberty of black citizens that is in any sense comparable to the odious practice the Thirteenth Amendment was designed to eradicate. Pp. 124-129.

610 F.2d 395, reversed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 129. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined, post, p. 135.

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STEVENS, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether a decision by the city of Memphis to close the north end of West Drive, a street that traverses a white residential community, violated § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, Rev.Stat. § 1978, 42 U.S.C. § 1982, or the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 The city's action was challenged by respondents, who resided in a predominantly black area to the north. The Court of Appeals ultimately held the street closing invalid because it adversely affected respondents' ability to hold and enjoy their property. 610 F.2d 395. We reverse because the record does not support that holding.


Most of the relevant facts concerning the geography, the decision to close the street, and the course of the litigation are not in [101 S.Ct. 1588] dispute. The inferences to be drawn from the evidence, however, are subject to some disagreement.

A. Geography

Hein Park, a small residential community in Memphis, Tenn., is bounded on three sides by thoroughfares and on the west by the campus of Southwestern University. West Drive is a two-lane street about a half mile long passing through the center of Hein Park. Its southern terminus is a short distance from an entrance to Overton Park, a large recreation

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area containing, among other facilities, the municipal zoo.2 Its northern terminus is at the intersection of Jackson Ave. and Springdale St., two heavily traveled four-lane avenues. West Drive is one of three streets that enter Hein Park from the north; two streets enter from the east.

The closing will have some effect on both through traffic and local traffic. Prior to the closing, a significant volume of traffic southbound on Springdale St. would continue south on West Drive and then -- because of the location of Overton Park to the south of Hein Park -- make either a right or a left turn to the next through street a few blocks away, before resuming the southerly route to the center of the city. The closing of West Drive will force this traffic to divert to the east or west before entering Hein Park, instead of when it leaves, but the closing will not make the entire route any longer. With respect to local traffic, the street closing will add some distance to the trip from Springdale St. to the entrance to Overton Park, and will make access to some homes in Hein Park slightly less convenient.

The area to the north of Hein Park is predominantly black. All of the homes in Hein Park were owned by whites when the decision to close the street was made.

B. City Approval

In 1970, residents of Hein Park requested the city to close four streets leading into the subdivision. After receiving objections from the police, fire, and sanitation departments, the city denied the request.3 In its report regarding the application,

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the city's Traffic Engineering Department noted that much of the traffic through the subdivision could be eliminated by closing West Drive at Jackson Ave. Trial Exhibit 14. Thereafter, on July 9, 1973, members of the Hein Park Civic Association filed with the Memphis and Shelby County Planning Commission a formal "Application to Close Streets or Alleys" seeking permission to close West Drive for 25 feet south of Jackson Ave. See Trial Exhibit 13, App. 135. The application was signed by the two property owners abutting both Jackson Ave. and West Drive and all but one of the other West Drive homeowners on the block immediately south of Jackson Ave. Ibid.4 The stated reasons for the closing were:

(1) Reduce flow of through traffic using subdivision streets.

(2) Increase safety to the many children who live in the subdivision and those who use the subdivision to walk to Snowden Junior High School.

(3) Reduce "traffic pollution" in a residential area, e.g., noise, litter, interruption of community living.


After receiving the views of interested municipal departments, the County Planning Commission, on November 1, 1973, recommended that the application be approved with the conditions that the applicants provide either an easement for existing and [101 S.Ct. 1589] future utility company facilities or the funds to relocate existing facilities, and that the closure provide clearance for fire department vehicles. Trial Exhibit 4, App. 130. The City Council held a hearing at which both proponents and opponents of the proposal presented their views, and the Council adopted a resolution authorizing the closing

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subject to the conditions recommended by the Planning Commission. See Trial Exhibit 26. The city reconsidered its action and held additional hearings on later dates, but never rescinded its resolution.5 See Trial Exhibits 27-30, 41.

C. Litigation

In a complaint filed against the city and various officials in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee on April 1, 1974, three individuals and two civic associations, suing on behalf of a class of residents north of Jackson Ave. and west of Springdale St., alleged that the closing was unconstitutional and prayed for an injunction requiring the city to keep West Drive open for through traffic.6 The District Court granted a motion to dismiss, holding that the complaint, as amended, failed to allege any injury to the plaintiffs' own property or any disparate racial effect,7 and

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that they had no standing as affected property owners to raise procedural objections to the city's action.8

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed. The court first noted that

a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in...

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