Civil Rights Act Anniversary: 40 Years Just a Beginning

Getting ready for the long Fourth of July Weekend, you might have missed the observance of a very important anniversary on Friday, July 2: the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Those of you who regularly read our blog undoubtedly have more than a passing interest in Title VII, but how much do you know about how the law was passed, and how it has transformed American society? And on this important day, it’s also good to think about how far we have to go, and all the limitations that still prevent Americans from realizing the true promise of the law.

It was ten years after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education striking the separate but equal doctrine (the 50th anniversary of which was celebrated earlier this year, on May 15, to great fanfare). (See article.) President Kennedy, inspired by the Brown decision, and subsequent efforts to desegregate America, had sent civil rights legislation to Congress in 1963, but the legislation contained little in the way of enforcement mechanisms. After the 1963 March on Washington, most famous for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (audio/written text), the employment discrimination provisions (now known as Title VII) were beefed up. This happened in spite of President Kennedy’s opposition, who feared losing Republican support for the measure. Negotiations between the President, civil rights leaders, and business groups continued right up to Kennedy’s death by assassination in November 1963. (See EEOC “First Principles article.”)

Following the President’s death, the bill was one of the highest priorities for new president Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Congress. While some told Johnson–a Southerner who already had a poor record on civil rights issues–that if the civil rights act were passed he would never be reelected, he pushed ahead anyway. (See Mercury News editorial.) The bill ultimately passed through both houses of Congress by large bipartisan majorities, and was signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964. Title VII, the employment portion of the bill, made it illegal to discriminate in employment decisions “because of” an “individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” and to “limit, segregate, or classify” employees or applicants in any way that would deprive them of employment opportunities or adversely affect their status “because of” their “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

A provision purportedly added to defeat the bill–the protection against sex discrimination–was ultimately part of the bill’s triumph. The legendary story is that Howard W. Smith, the Virginian head of the House Rules Committee, introduced “sex” to the measure as a joke, ridiculing the idea that you could legislate social behavior. (See Tallahassee Democrat article.) However, once feminists realized the import of having sex included, there began an aggressive push to keep the measure in the bill, led by Rep. Martha Griffiths, one of only nine women in Congress at the time. Some have later questioned whether the legend is true, and whether Smith was a friend rather than foe of the women’s movement(see EEOC “Expanding the Reach” article), but the enactment of the Title VII led to significant gains for women in the workforce as well as for others protected by the Act. While legislative history is scant for national origin discrimination, it too has become a significant form of protection for this form of discrimination, which has sadly become more prevalent since 9/11, especially for those of Middle Eastern origin.

So after 40 years of the Civil Rights Act, where do we stand now? There have been some significant improvements, to be sure. Here are just a few, noted in one editorial:

• While civil rights polarized America in the 1960s, 81% of Americans now say the movement was “extremely” or “very important.”

• Most Americans say they live in mixed communities.

• In 1958, an overwhelming 94% said they opposed interracial marriage; in 2003, 73% said they approved of it.

• Nine in 10 people now say they would vote for a black presidential candidate.

• In a 2003 survey, 70% of Americans said the quality of life for blacks has improved during the past 10 years.

(See USA Today editorial.) Prominent civil rights leaders also talk of the historic importance of the Act. “That legislation changed the face of America. It woke this country up,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, whose husband, Medgar Evers, was shot dead for organizing African Americans for the Mississippi NAACP in 1963. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.) “This is the act that put meaning into the word discrimination. Title VII legitimized a women’s search for equality in the work force.” says historian Alice Kessler-Harris, who remembers when she was forced to sign a paper promising to tell her employer if she became pregnant. (See Tallahassee Democrat article.) A young black military officer, when hearing of opposition to the Civil Rights Act on the basis of “property rights,” responded:

“Let me tell you what ‘property rights’ means. If you’re a soldier and you’re black, you’d better have a strong bladder, because you won’t be stopping much between Washington, D.C., and Fort Benning.” You also will have a hard time, he continued, finding a decent place to eat, going to a restroom or spending the night while driving to Georgia with your wife and son. You can’t reduce this issue to whether a white hotel owner should have to rent a room to a black, he said. “You can’t put property in the same league with human beings.”

The name of that officer? Colin Powell, now the Secretary of State. (See Springfield News-Leader article.)

But despite how far we’ve traveled, a number of problems still remain. Discrimination is still with us. In one recent poll, when asked, “Is racial discrimination in the workplace a major problem or not?” 54% of blacks, 31% of Hispanics and 17% of whites responded that it was. (See USA Today editorial.) Two studies conducted in California, using black and white testers to apply for the same job at temporary employment agencies found a “significant preference for white job applicants over equally qualified or more qualified black job applicants,” said John Trasvina, director of the Discrimination Research Center. “In some cases we gave the black applicant more job experience than the white applicant,” said Trasvina. “The white applicant (still) got a job quicker, was offered a permanent job or was offered a job at a higher compensation than the black applicant.” Doesn’t sound that much different than 40 years ago, does it?

There are also problems with the Civil Rights Act itself which need to be repaired. When you combine the Act’s age, with new problems and trends arising since the 1960s, with a series of conservative Supreme Court and lower court decisions gradually eroding some of the protections necessary to fully realize the civil rights dream, you find more work to be done. A number of fixes to the Civil Rights Act that are among the most urgent have been wrapped into a legislative fix proposed earlier this year: FAIRNESS: the Civil Rights Act of 2004 (HR 3809/S 2088). The FAIRNESS Act was discussed in more detail in our blog entry of February 19, 2004, but here’s what you need to know:

Recent decisions from the Supreme Court restrict the ability of individuals to seek protection in court for violation of their rights as guaranteed by Congress. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable members of our community who suffer as a result of these rollbacks: children, the disabled, women, older Americans, immigrants, and working people.

The fight for FAIRNESS is being led by the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights (LCCR), the leading coalition of national civil rights organizations, and endorsed by its member groups, including our allied organization NELA. The LCCR web site has a great deal of material about FAIRNESS,including a link where you can take action. While we’ve come a long ways, we all have much further to go. Only if all of us remain vigilant will all workers remain part of the discrimination-free workplace that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to make reality. Working to pass the FAIRNESS Act is an important piece of what remains to be done.

More Articles and Commentary:

Los Angeles Times: Living Separately and Unequally

Associated Press (Seattle Post-Intelligencer): Protestors Criticize EEOC Over Efforts

The Olympian (Gannett News Service): Month marks 40th year of Civil Rights Act

New York Times: Bush Marks 40th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Kerry’s Statement on 40th Anniversary of Civil Rights Act

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.