May 9, 2014

50 for 50: Five Decades of the Most Important Discrimination Law Developments

At Hirschfeld Kraemer, we are going to be marking the 50 year anniversary of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a daily series of blog posts called 50 for 50: Five Decades of the Most Important Discrimination Law Developments.  The series will begin on May 12 and continue until July 2, 2014, the 50 year anniversary of the law’s passage.

Think about the date the Civil Rights Act was signed into law: July 2, 1964.  It was nearly eight months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The Beatles had just appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Don Draper was still having two martini lunches.  Forrest Gump was returning touchdowns in college.

It was an election year.  The Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate and held nearly 60 percent of House seats, but each party was bitterly divided – the Democrats between a sitting President and the segregationist wing of his party and the Republicans between a small government conservative and a liberal wing led by a governor from New York.

The country was about to commemorate the centennial of the end of the Civil War, but in some places, you would not know that it had ended.  It had been only 10 years since the Supreme Court found that separate was inherently unequal and only 9 years after it ordered Topeka, Kansas to desegregate those schools.  Governors in Arkansas, Alabama and other southern states did everything in their power to block the integration of schools but those efforts were in vain.

By 1964, women had begun to enter the workforce in significant numbers, but nearly all of the jobs were non-managerial.  People over 55 made up just over 15 percent of the workforce.  Union participation was at an all-time high, both in the private and public sectors.

Against this historical backdrop emerged the unlikeliest of civil rights heroes: Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Texas senator who allegedly captured his Senate seat through fraud and who found himself the most powerful man in the world almost by accident.  It was Johnson who took on the mantle of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights legislation that the country had seen since Reconstruction.  The law banned discrimination in voting registration, hotels, restaurants, theaters, public facilities and public schools.  And, for the first time in history, the federal government sought to ban discrimination in employment – something only two states had done at the time.

The bill had met fierce resistance and, to be sure, there was significant doubt as to whether Johnson would continue the fight after Kennedy’s death.   But, it was Johnson’s resolve and his oratorical skills which ultimately led to the bill’s passage.  Days after he took the oath of office, Johnson told a joint session of Congress, “No memorial oration or 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.”

Still, the bill was filibustered at record lengths by well-known Democrats, including Albert Gore, Sr. (father of the former Vice President), J. William Fulbright (of Fulbright Scholarship fame), and Robert Byrd, one of the longest serving senators in history, who personally filibustered the bill for 14 hours.  In the House of Representatives, after a week of debate, Rep. Howard Smith, a southerner deeply opposed to passage of the bill, offered an amendment to add sex discrimination as a protected class – a move many believe was made with the hope that its inclusion would doom the bill.

But the move did not work and the bill was passed by wide margins through both chambers of Congress.  President Johnson signed the bill into law two days before the country celebrated the 188th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – a document which marked the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.”

July 2, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In the 50 years that have passed, the law has been universally lauded for breaking down artificial barriers based on race, sex, and nationality, but it has also has detractors who focus on the often colossal attorney’s fee awards that accompany discrimination and harassment cases.

Since 1964, Congress has fundamentally altered the way that the law is enforced.  It has created new protected classes (and in some cases it has declined to do so), added new types of claims, and tried to bring the law into the 21st century.  Our series will highlight those notable changes and it will culminate on July 2, 2014 the day which marks the 50th anniversary of the day that the Civil Rights Act became law.


Category: EEO,