The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s premier civil rights legislation. The Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote. It did not end discrimination, but it did open the door to further progress.
Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments outlawed slavery, provided for equal protection under the law, guaranteed citizenship, and protected the right to vote, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. These were upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1895), which found state laws requiring racial segregation that were “separate but equal” to be constitutional. This finding helped continue legalized discrimination well into the 20th century.
Following World War II, pressures to recognize, challenge, and change inequalities for minorities grew. One of the most notable challenges to the status quo was the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which questioned the notion of “separate but equal” in public education. The Court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and a violation of the 14th Amendment. This decision polarized Americans, fostered debate, and served as a catalyst to encourage federal action to protect civil rights.Q1
Each year, from 1945 until 1957, Congress considered and failed to pass a civil rights bill. Congress finally passed limited Civil Rights Acts in 1957 and 1960, but they offered only moderate gains. As a result of the 1957 Act, the United States Commission on Civil Rights was formed to investigate, report on, and make recommendations to the President concerning civil rights issues. Sit-ins, boycotts, Freedom Rides, the founding of organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), local demands for inclusion in the political process, all were in response to the increase in legislative activity through the 1950s and early 1960s.
1963 was a crucial year for the Civil Rights Movement. Social pressures continued to build with events such as the Birmingham Campaign, televised clashes between peaceful protesters and authorities, the murders of civil rights workers Medgar Evers and William L. Moore, the March on Washington, and the deaths of four young girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. There was no turning back. Civil rights were firmly on the national agenda and the federal government was forced to respond.
In response to the report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, President John F. Kennedy proposed, in a nationally televised address, a Civil Rights Act of 1963. A week after his speech, Kennedy submitted a bill to Congress addressing civil rights (H.R. 7152). He urged African American leaders to use caution when demonstrating since new violence might alarm potential supporters. Kennedy met with businessmen, religious leaders, labor officials, and other groups such as CORE and NAACP, while also maneuvering behind the scenes to build bipartisan support and negotiate compromises over controversial topics.
Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and newly inaugurated President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to press for passage of the bill — as King noted in a January 1964 newspaper column, legislation “will feel the intense focus of Negro interest... It became the order of the day at the great March on Washington last summer. The Negro and his white compatriots for self-respect and human dignity will not be denied.”Q2
The House of Representatives debated H.R. 7152 for nine days, rejecting nearly 100 amendments designed to weaken the bill. It passed the House on February 10, 1964 after 70 days of public hearings, appearances by 275 witnesses, and 5,792 pages of published testimony.
The real battle was waiting in the Senate, however, where concerns focused on the bill’s expansion of federal powers and its potential to anger constituents who might retaliate in the voting booth. Opponents launched the longest filibuster in American history, which lasted 57 days and brought the Senate to a virtual standstill.
Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen nurtured the bill through compromise discussions and ended the filibuster. Dirksen’s compromise bill passed the Senate after 83 days of debate that filled 3,000 pages in the Congressional Record. The House moved quickly to approve the Senate bill.
Within hours of its passage on July 2, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson, with Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Height, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, and other civil rights leaders in attendance, signed the bill into law, declaring once and for all that discrimination for any reason on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was illegal in the United States of America.Q3
“Civil Rights Act of 1964” by National Park Service (2017) is in the public domain.
- Polarize(verb): to divide or cause to divide a population into two sharply opposing groups
- Boycott(noun): an organized action taken by a group to stop buying or using a particular product in order to send a message.
- Bipartisan(adjective): involving members of two parties
- Constituent(noun): a voter
Title VII, the federal law that prohibits most workplace harassment and discrimination, covers all private employers, state and local governments, and educational institutions with 15 or more employees. In addition to prohibiting discrimination against workers because of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex, those protections have been extended to include barring against discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, sex stereotyping, and sexual harassment of employees.
Currently, Title VII doesn’t include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.However federal legislation adding sexual orientation as a protected class against discrimination (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA)), has been proposed in recent years. Many states have employment discrimination and harassment laws as well and may include even more protected classes – such as marital status and sexual orientation – than Title VII covers.
Mastering HR Report: Discrimination
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was signed into law on Jan. 29, 2009, changes when the statute of limitations begins for workers’pay discrimination claims under Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). It declares that an unlawful employment practice occurs not only when a discriminatory pay decision or practice is adopted but also when the employee becomes subject to the decision or practice, as well as each additional application of that decision or practice. In other words, each time compensation is paid.
HR Guide to Employment Law: A practical compliance reference manual covering 14 topics, including discrimination
The legal theory of harassment evolved out of legal interpretations of the discrimination prohibitions in Title VII. The law itself doesn’t mention the term harassment at all but the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted that a hostile work environment will violate the prohibitions of Title VII. When harassment is so pervasive and severe that it actually alters an employee’s terms or conditions of employment and creates an abusive working environment, a violation of the law has occurred.
Title VII and disparate impact
The legal consideration of a Title VII disparate impact claim consists of a three-part analysis. First, the employee must identify and prove that a particular employment practice “causes a disparate impact on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Generally, the employee makes this showing of causation through the use of statistical evidence, which the employer may challenge.
If the employer demonstrates that the employee’s statistical evidence is unreliable, the employee will have failed to meet her burden of demonstrating adverse impact. At this point, the case (at least the disparate impact claim) would be over. If, however, the statistical evidence establishes that the challenged practice had a substantial adverse impact on the protected group, the employee will have met her initial burden.
Second, assuming that the employee establishes a disparate impact, the focus turns to the company, which must demonstrate that the “challenged practice is job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.” In this context, “business necessity” means that the challenged employment practice has a “manifest relationship to the employment in question” and that the employer had a significant or compelling need to maintain the practice despite its disparate impact.
Third, even if the employer proves business necessity, the employee still may prevail by proving that the employer refused to adopt “an alternative employment practice” that would accomplish the same business objectives, but which would have a smaller adverse impact. In other words, pretext would be shown if the employee demonstrates that “other tests or selection devices, without a similarly undesirable [discriminatory] effect, would also serve the employer’s legitimate interest in ‘efficient and trustworthy workmanship.'” In short, for the employer to successfully defend against a Title VII disparate impact claim, it must show that the employment practice at issue was consistent with business necessity and that there was no other way with less adverse impact to achieve its legitimate business purpose.
State-by-state comparison of 50 employment laws in all 50 states
Title VII and retaliation
On January 26, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the scope of Title VII’s anti-retaliation protections. Specifically, in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn., the Supreme Court held that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision protects not only employees who report complaints of harassment/discrimination on their own initiative, but also employees who speak out about harassment/discrimination while answering questions during an employer’s internal investigation of a harassment/discrimination complaint.
Title VII and the EEOC
Before an employee can file a complaint against an employer under Title VII, he first must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the EEOC finds that the employee’s claim has merit, it may sue on his behalf. Otherwise, it will issue him a “right-to-sue” letter, and he then can file a complaint and begin the litigation process.
Employees and the EEOC can sue for lost wages, benefits, reinstatement, and attorneys’ fees. Compensatory damages (damages for wages and emotional distress) are “capped” by Title VII and the amount allowed per employee will vary depending on the size of the employer.