Watson v. City of Memphis, Tenn

Citation373 U.S. 526,10 L.Ed.2d 529,83 S.Ct. 1314
Decision Date27 May 1963
Docket NumberNo. 424,424
PartiesI. A. WATSON, Jr., et al., Petitioners, v. CITY OF MEMPHIS, TENN., et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 526-527 intentionally omitted] Constance B. Motley, New York City, for petitioners.

Thomas R. Prewitt, Memphis, Tenn., for respondents.

Mr. Justice GOLDBERG delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case, simply stated, is whether the City of Memphis may further delay in meeting fully its constitutional obligation under the Fourteenth Amendment to desegregate its public parks and other municipal recreational facilities.

The petitioners, adult Negro residents of Memphis, commenced this action against the city in May 1960 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief directing immediate desegregation of municipal parks and other city owned or operated recreational facilities from which Negroes were then 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 and at once to constitutional mandates by urging the need and wisdom of proceeding slowly and gradually in its desegregation efforts.

The District Court denied the relief sought by the petitioners and ordered the city to submit, within six months, a plan providing additional time for desegregation of the relevant facilities.1 The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. 303 F.2d 863. We granted certiorari, 371 U.S. 909, 83 S.Ct. 256, 9 L.Ed.2d 169, to consider the important question presented and the applicability here of the principles enunciated by this Court in the second Brown decision, Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294, 75 S.Ct. 753, 99 L.Ed. 1083, upon which the courts below relied in further delaying complete vindication of the petitioners' constitutional rights.

We find the second Brown decision to be inapplicable here and accordingly reverse the judgment below.


It is important at the outset to note the chronological context in which the city makes its claim to entitlement to additional time within which to work out complete elimination of racial barriers to use of the public facilities here involved. It is now more than nine years since this Court held in the first Brown decision, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873, that racial segregation in state public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And it was almost eight years ago—in 1955, the year after the decision on the merits in Brown—that the constitutional proscription of state enforced racial segregation was found to apply to public recreational facilities. See Dawson v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, 4 Cir., 220 F.2d 386, aff'd, 350 U.S. 877, 76 S.Ct. 133, 100 L.Ed. 774; see also Muir v. Louisville Park Theatrical Assn., 347 U.S. 971, 74 S.Ct. 783, 98 L.Ed. 1112.

Thus, the applicability here of the factors and reasoning relied on in framing the 1955 decree in the second Brown decision, supra, which contemplated the possible need of some limited delay in effecting total desegregation of public schools, must be considered not only in the context of factual similarities, if any, between that case and this one, but also in light of the significant fact that the governing constitutional principles no longer bear the imprint of newly enunciated doctrine. In considering the appropriateness of the equitable decree entered below inviting a plan calling for an even longer delay in effecting desegregation, we 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,2 and the many intervening opportunities heretofore available to attain the equality of treatment which the Fourteenth Amendment commands the States to achieve. These factors must inevitably and substantially temper the present import of such broad policy considerations as may have underlain, even in part, the form of decree ultimately framed in the Brown case. Given the extended time which has elapsed, it is far from clear that the mandate of the second Brown decision requiring that desegregation proceed with 'all deliberate speed' would today be fully satisfied by types of plans or programs for desegregation of public educational facilities which eight years ago might have been deemed sufficient. Brown never contemplated that the concept of 'deliberate speed' would countenance indefinite delay in elimination of racial barriers in schools, let alone other public facilities not involving the same physical problems or comparable conditions.


When, in 1954, in the first Brown decision, this Court declared the constitutional impermissibility of racial segregation in public schools, it did not immediately frame a decree, but instead invited and heard further argument on the question of relief. In its subsequent opinion, the Court noted that '(f)ull implementation of these (applicable) constitutional principles may require solution of varied local school problems' and indicated an appropriate scope for the application of equitable principles consistent with both public and private need and for 'exercise of (the) * * * traditional attributes of equity power.' 349 U.S., at 299—300, 75 S.Ct., at 756, 99 L.Ed. 1083. The District Courts to which the cases there under consideration were remanded were invested with a discretion appropriate to ultimate fashioning of detailed relief consonant with properly cognizable local conditions. This did not mean, however, that the discretion was even then unfettered or exercisable without restraint. Basic to the remand was the concept that desegregation must proceed with 'all deliberate speed,' and the problems which might be considered and which might justify a decree requiring something less than immediate and total desegregation were severely delimited. Hostility to the constitutional precepts underlying the original decision was expressly and firmly pretermitted as such an operative factor. Id., 349 U.S., at 300, 75 S.Ct., at 756, 99 L.Ed. 1083.

The nature of the ultimate resolution effected in the second Brown decision largely reflected no more than a recognition of the unusual and particular problems inhering in desegregating large numbers of schools throughout the country. The careful specification of factors relevant to a determination whether any delay in complying fully and completely with the constitutional mandate would be warranted demonstrated a concern that delay not be conditioned upon insufficient reasons or, in any event, tolerated unless it imperatively and compellingly appeared unavoidable.

This case presents no obvious occasion for the application of Brown. We are not here confronted with attempted desegregation of a local school system with any or all of the perhaps uniquely attendant problems, administrative and other, specified in the second Brown decision as proper considerations in weighing the need for further delay in vindicating the Fourteenth Amendment rights of petitioners.3 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.4

Most importantly, of course, it must be recognized that 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. The rights here asserted are, like all such rights, present rights; they are not merely hopes to some future enjoyment of some formalistic constitutional promise. The basic guarantees of our Constitution are warrants for the here and now and, unless there is an overwhelmingly compelling reason, they are to be promptly fulfilled.5 The second Brown decision is but a narrowly drawn, and carefully limited, qualification upon usual precepts of constitutional adjudication and is not to be unnecessarily expanded in application.

Solely because of their race, the petitioners here have been refused the use of city owned or operated parks and other recreational facilities which the Constitution mandates be open to their enjoyment on equal terms with white persons. The city has effected, continues to effect, and claims the right or need to prolong patently unconstitutional racial discriminations violative of now long-declared and well-established individual rights. 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. In short, the city must sustain an extremely heavy burden of proof.

Examination of the facts of this case in light of the foregoing discussion discloses with singular clarity that this burden has not been sustained; indeed, it is patent from the record that the principles enunciated in the second Brown decision have absolutely no application here.


The findings of the District Court disclose an unmistakable and pervasive pattern of local segregation, which, in fact, the city makes no attempt to deny, but merely attempts to justify as...

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