The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Title VII

Panel I - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

First Principles - Enacting the Civil Rights Act and Using the Courts to Challenge and Remedy Workplace Discrimination

One hundred years after the Civil War, President John F. Kennedy called on Americans to fulfill the nation's promise of equal rights and equal opportunities. The President's decision to send civil rights legislation to Congress followed a decade of increasingly insistent civil rights activism inspired by the Supreme Court's rejection of the pernicious "separate but equal" doctrine in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. During the Spring of 1963 Americans and the world were shocked to see civil rights demonstrators beaten, attacked by police dogs, sprayed with high pressure water hoses, arrested and jailed. The immediate backdrop of the President's action was the spectacle of the Alabama National Guard being sent to carry out the unequivocal order of a federal district court to admit two black students to the University of Alabama. In June the President addressed the nation to say:

The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or State or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them. . . . We face, therefore a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. . . .Next week I shall ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.

The proposed legislation, which was the first major civil rights legislation since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, seemed shaped principally to deal with the remaining vestiges of Jim Crow and segregation, and to that end it addressed discrimination in voting, public accommodations, and education, as well as employment. Title VII's prohibitions of discrimination in employment had their roots in the Unemployment Relief Act of 1933, which provided "[t]hat in employing citizens for the purpose of this Act no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed." The administrations of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy all created Fair Employment Practices Committees to investigate complaints of discrimination against businesses with federal contracts. President Kennedy's proposed legislation in 1963 simply continued the long-standing practice of attempting to eradicate discrimination by those doing business with the federal government through voluntary compliance, without any enforcement mechanisms.

The employment provisions underwent significant revisions in the cataclysmic months after President Kennedy first sent the bill to Congress. On August 28,1963, 250,000 demonstrators marched on Washington, where they and the nation were electrified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Afterwards, President Kennedy met with march leaders to discourage them from trying to strengthen Title VII and other portions of the bill because he feared that doing so would kill necessary Republican support. Two weeks later several children were killed when a black church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. Supporters of the Civil Rights Bill responded by strengthening key provisions, especially the employment measure. The amendments applied Title VII to all employers with more than 25 employees, and created the EEOC and gave it cease and desist authority. Members of Congress opposed to federal government regulation of private enterprise felt betrayed by these developments. President Kennedy worked to achieve a compromise that left EEOC as the enforcement agency but took away its cease and desist powers. The bill was sent to the Rules Committee the day before President Kennedy was assassinated. Five days after the assassination, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to say: "We have talked long enough in this country about civil rights. It is time to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law. . . .No eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." Passage of the bill became a priority for Congress and was backed by public opinion; a December Newsweek poll showed that 62 percent of people supported civil rights; a National Opinion Research Center survey showed 83 percent in favor of equal employment opportunity. After extensive debate and lobbying efforts by outside groups and the White House, Title VII was passed in June 1964 by strong bipartisan majorities in both houses, and signed into law by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.

Once enacted, with its simple prohibitions of discrimination in employment decisions "because of" an "individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin" and of "limit[ing], segregat[ing], or classify[ing]" 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," thousands of people began to file charges with the newly created EEOC and then to make their way into court.

Once challenges to the Civil Rights Act's constitutionality were resolved, and questions about various procedural aspects of the statute were answered, questions about the proof necessary to establish a Title VII violation soon began to occupy the courts. McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green and Griggs v. Duke Power Co. authorized two different methods of proving discrimination–disparate treatment and disparate impact–and one or the other is still invoked in most discrimination cases involving circumstantial evidence. These proof paradigms have proved adaptable to challenges to all types of employment actions – from a failure to hire or promote to termination – and to claims of discrimination on all bases enumerated in Title VII–race, color, religion, national origin and sex. The McDonnell Douglas Court also confirmed that individuals are entitled to a de novo trial of their discrimination claims, regardless of the conclusions or actions of the EEOC, thereby assuring the primacy of the private attorneys general in the enforcement of Title VII. The courts also dealt early on with special rules for proving and conducting trials in cases challenging broad systemic patterns of discrimination, such as the challenge to the discriminatory operation of the seniority system in Teamsters v. United States.

This page was last modified on June 24, 2004.

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