Missouri’s Civil Rights Stories: Legal Challenges – Housing

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Equal access to housing was a major issue in the fight for civil rights. Two U.S. Supreme Court cases that originated in Missouri helped end discriminatory practices in the real estate market.

Shelley v. Kraemer

In 1945, J.D. Shelley and his family purchased a home in an area of St. Louis that enforced racially restrictive covenants against Black citizens. Though the Shelley family legally purchased the house, a neighbor sued the family in an attempt to evict them from the neighborhood. With support from the NAACP, Shelley fought for his family’s right to live where they wanted.

In court, Shelley’s attorney argued that the covenant was unconstitutional and violated the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Although the court initially ruled in favor of Shelly, the case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled against him.

The case moved on to the U.S. Supreme Court where it was consolidated with a similar case from Detroit. Attorneys argued that restrictive covenants enforced by the court system qualified as state action, which was illegal because it violated civil rights laws.

In 1948, the court ruled in favor of Shelley. The decision stated that private discriminatory action is not illegal, but federal and state courts could not enforce restrictive covenants because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

J.D. Shelley and his family lived in the house for the duration of the legal battle and for the remainder of his life. The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990.

Jones v. Mayer Co.

In 1965, Joseph Lee Jones and his wife Barbara attempted to purchase a home in a suburban community in St. Louis County from Alfred H. Mayer, a real estate developer. Mayer rejected their offer because Jones was Black.

The Joneses filed a lawsuit against Mayer, but it was dismissed by the federal district court because the judge claimed no property owner is required to sell their property against their will. The dismissal was upheld when the case was appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case in 1968 and ruled in favor of the Joneses. The case banned racial discrimination in the sale or rental of property. Mayer actually supported the suit and paid the Joneses’ legal costs. He hoped the case would ultimately lead to the desegregation of the real estate market and prohibit all developers from discriminating against buyers based on their race.