A Golden Anniversary for Civil Rights Act of 1964

It was a law that transformed the workplace and it was a pivotal event that transformed the human resources profession. Barbara and I recently heard Victoria Lipnic, Commissioner for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission speak, and she noted that if it wasn’t for this law, most of us in this room (predominately women) would not have the jobs we have today. This is certainly true for her, since the EEOC was created by the Civil Rights Act. Then I glanced around the room to assess the average age of the attendees wondering how many of them realized how much things had changed over the last 50 years.

It was just last fall at an evening reception during a workshop devoted to issues related to affirmative action and equal employment opportunity laws that some younger women in attendance had a shocking revelation. Those of us in the group who joined the workforce in the 60s and the 70s were recounting life during the dawn of this era – things like help wanted men/women ads in newspapers or questions posed to women in job interviews about marital status or child bearing plans.

I remembered another similar setting about 15 or 20 years ago – lunch at a similar type of meeting –
when an African American man talked about his difficulty getting a mortgage in the late 60s or early 70s because of his race. I shared how in those days married women were often not granted credit in their own name, but rather in their husband’s name. A younger colleague, a member of Generation X and a very independent woman to this day, was aghast.

Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin. Title VII applies to private employers, labor unions and employment agencies. The Act prohibits discrimination in recruitment, hiring, wages, assignment, promotions, benefits, discipline, discharge, layoffs and almost every aspect of employment.

Commissioner Lipnic made another important observation. The Civil Rights Act could not pass today. The time and compromise that went into passing this law in 1964 was phenomenal. There was a great deal of legislative negotiation that took place before it passed.

The U.S. Senate, after the longest debate in its nearly 180-year history, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the evening of June 19, 1964 with 73 votes in favor and 27 against the bill. The U.S. House of Representatives passed it on July 2, and President Johnson signed it into law that same evening. Five hundred amendments were made to the bill and Congress debated it for 534 hours. It was the first significant civil rights law since Reconstruction, and it was not without critics. Much of the debate was contentious.

Mississippi Representative Abernathy described the legislation that would become Title VII as assuming "authority over the American people in a manner unmatched in modern history outside acknowledged dictatorships." He is also said to have added, only half in jest presumably, "[i]f a department store manager wants to hire all blond sales clerks, he can hire blond sales clerks. His wife might object, but the Federal Government cannot."

Of course, Title VII prohibits not only race and color discrimination, but also religion, sex and national origin discrimination. The scope of protection was debated vigorously. Ohio Representative John Ashbrook took issue with the religious protections, noting that "[i]t seems incredible that we would even seriously consider forcing an employer to hire an atheist."

Some accounts suggest that the addition of the word "sex" in the list of protections by Virginia Representative Howard Smith was intended as an effort to stop the bill in its tracks. New York Representative Emanuel Cellar countered that in his home, gender relations were peaceful because "I usually have the last two words, and those words are 'Yes, dear.'" On a more serious note, New York's Representative Katharine St. George lobbied for protections based on sex, saying "We outlast you. We outlive you. We nag you to death ... We are entitled to this little crumb of equality. The addition of that little, terrifying word 's-e-x' will not hurt this legislation in any way. In fact, it will improve it ... It will make it right." (Eric Dreiband, Celebration of Title VII at Forty, 36 U. Mem. L. Rev. 5 (2005)).

We live in more enlighten times and have witnessed shifts in our American culture. We have made great strides in eliminating discrimination in the workplace and in other segments of our society. Certainly the demographics of the U. S. Congress has shifted and both Houses are more diverse not only in gender, racial, and ethnic composition, but there is more religious diversity as well than they were in 1964. Yet, the climate of partisanship in Washington today – a lack of diversity of thought, perhaps – would prevent this law from passing in the 21st Century.

Despite what the Virginia Slims commercial from the 1960s said, “You’ve come a long way baby” – Yes, Michelle, there used to be cigarette commercials on TV – there is still much work to do. Take a moment to honor this Golden Anniversary.


1 comment ()

1. Susan Warner, J.D., SPHR wrote:
Loved this article, Cornelia. I'm going to share it with my on-line class tonight. I'm also going to take a look at your book. Sounds interesting! Warm Regards, Susan.

July 8, 2014 @ 7:31 AM

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