Title VII of the civil rights act after 50 years: proceedings of the new york university 67th annual conference on labor

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Note: This article will appear in TITLE VII OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT AFTER 50 YEARS: PROCEEDINGS OF THE NEW YORK UNIVERSITY 67TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON LABOR (LexisNexis forthcoming 2015). Until publication the contents are subject to change.

Chapter One

The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Magna Carta of Human Rights

David Lopez and Andréa Amaya*


In 2014, I was the luncheon speaker at the New York University Conference on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act after 50 Years. That year, I participated in similar events across the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Act. As part of this celebration, I heard the personal accounts of numerous participants of the civil rights marches and legislative battles that led to the passage of the Act, as well as the retrospective views of historians, attorneys, and advocates, about these events and their profound impact on our country. Each of these stories highlighted different causes, events, and personalities, but in my mind they all flowed into a broad patriotic narrative about an act virtually all agreed was borne out of one of the most significant and transformative periods in our nation’s history.

I was born the year the Act was passed. As neither a participant in the events leading to its passage, nor a true historian, I told the story of Title VII from my vantage point as General Counsel for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC, a creation of the Act, was charged with implementing Title VII, the Act’s prohibition against employment discrimination. Looking back at the development of Title VII, as well as later legislation prohibiting employment discrimination I have long recognized this as a journey fraught with setbacks and heartbreak. Still, taking the long view, I believe it has been a journey forward. This freedom struggle that culminated in the Civil Rights Act has, over the past half-century, liberated us all by unleashing tremendous individual potential and productivity previously frustrated by discriminatory attitudes and practices, now unlawful. In my retelling of this story I found a metaphor in the Magna Carta of 1215 – the legal document whereby the King of England first shared some of his political authority with others. I believe that this invocation aptly captures the broad legal and moral principles enshrined in the Act – human dignity and equality. As noted, I am not a historian and in recalling Title VII’s story, I set out to reveal something broader about ourselves as a nation. The story is interwoven from scattered sources, which, at times, bumped up against “history” in my empirical quest for a truth. Looking back, with a researcher’s eye, I think no part of the story proved more complex than the central metaphor of the “Magna Carta.” Though, the Magna Carta – as procurer of political freedom – has been largely categorized as a myth, I believe the story of the Act, represents a true step forward for freedom and recognition of our common pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

  1. Introduction: A Magna Carta of Human Rights

This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is a product of Title VII of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Roy Wilkins, General Secretary of the NAACP, called the new law “a Magna Carta of human rights.”1 Howard Smith, Democratic Congressman from Virginia’s 8th Congressional District and one of the co-authors of the Southern Manifesto called it “a monstrous oppression of the people.”2 With a half-century of experience under the Civil Rights Act, we must recall those early reactions to the Act as they continue to define the debate and progress of antidiscrimination efforts inside and outside of the courtroom. Yet, if we define the Magna Carta as a document enshrining the transcendent and timeless moral principles of human dignity and equality,3 then General Secretary Wilkins’ initial description of the promise of the Act has been significantly validated.4

II. Pursuing Equal Opportunity in Employment

Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, which includes the City of Alexandria and Arlington County, sits across the Potomac River from Washington. Congressman Howard Smith formerly represented the 8th Congressional District and it is where I currently reside.5

I have been blessed with three teenage sons. A rite of passage during the teenage years, is securing the first job. Not long ago, my two oldest sons attended a job fair at Washington and Lee High School, in the heart of Arlington. The school was named for the two most famous Virginians – George Washington, our first President, and Robert E. Lee, Confederate

General for the Army of Northern Virginia.6 After I dropped them off on the corner, of course, I snuck in to take a peak. What I saw reflected the dynamic American tapestry: teenagers of all backgrounds, African-American, Salvadorian, Nepalese, Russian, young women, young men – all entering the job market and dreaming of their futures, confident their achievements will turn on hard work and creativity; regardless of race, gender, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation.7

As adults know, today’s young people will face some successes and some failures along the way, and sometimes life simply is not fair, but, as I observed at the job fair, they will begin to pursue their dreams with a sincere belief in “pluck not luck is what matters.” That concept, premised on basic equality of opportunity, is in a constant a state of evolution. We must acknowledge that, as we know it today, equal opportunity was not inevitable but instead the product of enormous vigilance and sacrifice over many generations.

III. Marching for Formal Equality

In the spring of 1963, civil right activists from all over the country turned their attention to Birmingham, Alabama, with hopes of casting off the odious chains of racial segregation, giving meaning to the Constitutional promise of Brown v. Board of Education, and opening up the city’s downtown economic center to African-Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders organized a visible and national series of nonviolent, civil rights demonstrations that pit the vulnerability of hopeful protestors against the chaotic, inhuman violence founded on racial hatred. As designed, a wide-eyed America tuned in.8

In April, Dr. Martin Luther King, arrested for prohibited parading, smuggled out a letter in response to a Birmingham News article entitled “White Clergymen Urge Local Negros to Withdraw from Demonstrations.” The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” drafted on the margins of that very newspaper article and contraband sheets of paper, became one of the most powerful pieces of advocacy in the history of our country. In this letter, Dr. King admonishes:

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.9

Upon release from jail, Dr. King and the leaders of the campaign made a controversial decision.10 They encouraged the young people of Birmingham – the same age as those young people at Washington and Lee High School – and younger to pick up the flag of the campaign and march peacefully through the streets of downtown Birmingham.11 On May 2, 1963, the “children’s crusade” began to march, and their young voices rose in song as they walked out of doors of the 16th Street Baptist Church and into downtown Birmingham.12 There, the protestors encountered the segregationist, commissioner of public safety Eugene T. “Bull” Connor.13 The jails soon overflowed with demonstrators.14 Conner quickly ended the arrests and ordered police to intimidate the children and other demonstrators with police dogs and fire hoses, the reports and images of which remain emblazoned on American’s hearts and minds.15

Charles Moore’s black-and-white photographs of the young victims attacked by the Birmingham authorities and local vigilantes reverberated throughout the world, with many viewing the scenes through the fast-growing medium of television.16 Today, these photos invite discussion, criticism and praise as they are anything but black and white. In 1963, these images emphasized for those who either did not know or who did not want to know the depth of prejudice, brutality, and immorality of the southern caste system. One week later, many across the world were further shocked by images of Alabama Governor George Wallace standing in front of the door and at the steps of the University of Alabama, manifesting the racial animus of southern segregationist by refusing to comply with a court order requiring admission of African-American students.17

Kennedy was barely elected to the presidency in 1960 with a fragile coalition of the industrial cities of the Midwest and East, and the segregationist South.18 However, whatever equivocation or political cautiousness President Kennedy may have displayed on the issue of civil rights quickly turned to resolve.19 On June 11, President Kennedy went on national television and announced his intention to introduce a comprehensive civil rights bill, he stated,

[w]e are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is an issue as old as Scriptures and it is as clear of the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow American as we want to be treated.20

Kennedy’s speech echoed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s twin tenets of religious and political justice, and formally delivered his allegiance to the civil rights movement and a promise of peace. However, his call for peaceful change and resolution was answered with a retaliatory, monstrous act. Within 4 hours, Medgar Evers, head of the Jackson, Mississippi, branch of the NAACP and a World War II veteran, was murdered on his front lawn by Ku Klux Klan members.21 During his funeral at Arlington Cemetery, his widow, Myrlie Evers, stated, “You can kill a man but not an idea.”22 Thus, this story goes: peaceful assembly and use of democratic processes, answered with violence and terror. Eight days later Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress.23

IV. Passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

In August 1963, civil rights leaders turned their attention to the nation’s capital and a planned Washington March for jobs and economic justice.24 The whispering campaign began and on the day of the assembly many in the city froze in fear of widespread violence.25 The baseball doubleheader was postponed, hundreds of business closed shop, and suburbanites stayed at home.26 President Kennedy despite his outward support for the event, worried that the planned march would result in an unruly assembly and derail public support for a strong civil rights bill.27 But this fear proved ultimately to be unfounded. Two hundred thousand citizens arrived from across the country – a confetti crowd of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds; including rabbis, white union leaders, and more than 65 members of Congress.28 With opening speeches and three television networks coving the event, it was apparent to the world that the March on Washington would not only be peaceful, but transformational.29

The peace could not last. Three weeks later on Sunday morning, four African-American girls, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carol Robertson, 14, Addie Mae Collins, 14, were murdered in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, punctuating the threatening air in Birmingham.30 As a result of this atrocity the progressives in Congress were able to garner additional support for the strongest civil rights bill possible, one that included effective prohibitions against employment discrimination.31

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.32 The nation was distraught.  Civil rights advocates feared that the assassination of Kennedy would halt the passage of a strong civil rights bill. Ascending to the presidency was Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, former Senator from the state of Texas.33 Though Johnson wasn't an ardent segregationist, he was a Southern Senator and frequently caucused with the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party.34

It soon became clear, however, that Johnson was going to follow his own script.35 Two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy's, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in a televised speech.36 He made clear the first order of business, stating, "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. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law."37

The segregationists dug in.38 They initiated what would be the longest Senate filibuster ever, outlasting the prior record set in 1846.39 The backers of the bill and President Johnson pushed back. Johnson was insecure and could be mean but he knew all the tricks of politics and as Senate Majority leader was titled “Master of the Senate.”40 Johnson was known to supplicate, accuse, cajole, scorn, complain and even threaten as tactics.41 The “Johnson treatment” has been aptly described as a St. Bernard licking you and pawing you at the same time.42 When his friend and mentor, Richard Russell, unofficial Dean of Southern Democrats, suggested he should low on the civil rights bill because he would not only lose the election but also lose the South to the Democratic Party for a generation,43 Johnson purportedly told him, “I love you and I owe you. Which is why I want to tell you, please don’t get in my way on this civil rights bill, which has been blackened too long, because if you do, I’ll run you down.”44

The filibuster continued.45 The rhetoric of the Southern Democrats was inflammatory.46 Sen. Strom Thurmond, a Democrat for South Carolina47 decried, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”48 Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia) threatened, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states.”49

Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen threw his weight behind the bill.50 A conservative, pro-business Republican, Senator Dirksen, paraphrasing Victor Hugo, in a speech condemning the filibuster, said, “No army can withstand the strength of the idea whose time has come.”51 Indeed, the Republicans, from the Great Plains and Midwest, were the critical voting block needed to break the filibuster.52 Senator Dirksen worked assiduously around-the-clock to secure their vote for cloture to end debate and send the bill to a vote of the full Senate.53 On June 10, 1964, the Senate voted cloture, the debate ended and Congress swiftly passed the bill.54 On July 2, 1964, President Johnson, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. standing over his left shoulder, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.55

The photograph of this iconic moment stands at the entrance of the EEOC’s headquarters training center in Washington, D.C.56 The photograph contains many telling details, though there are two that seem particularly immediate. First, one may notice King’s expression. He appears merely content, and a more searching viewer will not discern feelings of joy or satisfaction. His contentment reflects the broader consideration of the past and the effort, the vast struggle that brought him here, as well as the sobering awareness that this much celebrated event was but a momentary pause on this country’s march to greater freedom and opportunity.57 Second, what we see with our twenty-first-century sensibilities is that at the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act there is a noticeable absence of women.58 Only men participated in the signing ceremony even though, as I will discuss, the language of Title VII and other portions of the Act included prohibitions against sex discrimination.59

Passage of this monumental Act proved to be a turning point in our country, comparable in many ways to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This legislation not only addressed discriminatory structures in existence at the time, but it also, triggered a generational conversation about freedom and opportunity – in the streets, around the dinner table, in the boardroom, the classroom, the courtroom, and between the three branches of government that, as we shall see, has transformed this country. In the EEOC’s headquarters training center, a mere twenty steps from the iconic photograph of President Johnson signing the 1964 Act is another photograph, and together, they convey the promise of this country. A little less than fifty years later, this second, parallel photograph captures President Barack Obama, who has credited the role of the Civil Rights Act in his life, signing the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.60 Standing over President Obama’s shoulder is Lily Ledbetter from Gadsden, Alabama.61

Perhaps less apparent in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 photograph is the impressive bi-partisan support of Republicans and Democrats.62 Indeed, every piece of Civil Rights legislation until the Lily Ledbetter Act was passed with strong bipartisan support.63 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is one such example of the willingness of insular groups to coalesce around their belief in broad protections from workplace discrimination. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA.64 When the Supreme Court handed down a series of decisions in 1999 narrowly interpreting coverage under the ADA,65 Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act in 2008.66

V. Enforcing Equal Opportunity

On its face, the Civil Rights Act was a “Magna Carta of Civil Rights.” Title VII contained broad injunctions against discrimination, promising dramatic social change, however, the provision lacked specific guidance as to how these prohibitions would be enforced.67 Against this tabula rasa, civil rights advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) and the EEOC, often working closely together behind the scenes, filled in the blanks to ensure, first and foremost, equal employment opportunity for African-Americans. 68 Practically, this meant developing the operation of Title VII’s procedural requirements through litigation.69 Concurrently, the advocacy groups began to develop the prohibition against race discrimination to address not only individual claims, but also broad systemic practices that veiled discriminatory employment practices, including implicit and societal discrimination. Constitutional equal protection jurisprudence provided a powerful wellspring of principles for the development of Title VII.70 The combined effort of the advocacy groups and the EEOC, frequently through the filing of amicus briefs and broad conciliation efforts, ultimately led to the Supreme Court’s unanimous recognition of disparate impact theory in Griggs v. Duke Power, later codified in the Civil Rights Act of 1991.71 Disparate impact theory provided private plaintiffs, as well as the EEOC (afforded litigation authority in 1972), with a powerful tool to combat employment practices, operating as, built-in headwinds to the employment of African Americans, not related to the job or needs of the business, as described by the Court in Griggs.72 Combatting discrimination continues to require constant vigilance and all too often the same issue reappears, each time “more subtle, more difficult to detect, and more difficult to eradicate”; thus, disparate impact theory has been a critical tool to fulfilling the Magna Carta prophesy as it was also extended to the protected classifications of sex and national origin.73

Perhaps the spirit of the Magna Carta has most animated Title VII with respect to its prohibition against sex discrimination. The addition of the prohibition against “sex” discrimination was introduced by, none other than Congressman Howard Smith.74 A well-circulated story about Congressman Smith is that he introduced the prohibition as way to sabotage the bill.75 This view was partly perpetuated by the EEOC’ s first Chair Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.,76 a strong supporter of civil rights for African Americans, who said

“[T]he provision in the law covering women was inserted at the last minute because ‘Howard Smith, certainly no friend of equal opportunity,’ wanted to create ‘ridicule and confusion.’”77

Recently, new scholarship has revealed a more complicated story.78 The “sabotage” or “joke” narrative ignores that many members of Congress supported the addition of “sex,” some of whom had long pushed for a prohibition against sex discrimination and worked tirelessly for its adoption once it was introduced. 79 Also, this story ignores that Congressman Smith, a strident opponent of African-American civil rights, was a longtime friend of the National Women’s Party (NWP) with a twenty-year record of supporting the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).80 In 1963, Smith was urged by the NWP members to introduce the amendment.81 The NWP hand selected Smith because he was a powerful Southerner, he was chair of the Rules Committee, and he was a friend of NWP leader, Alice Paul.82

The EEOC’s effort to enforce the prohibition got off to a slow start.83 Many of the attorneys and the investigators understandably were focused on racial discrimination; however, at least one-third of the early charges filed with the agency alleged sex discrimination.84 When the Commission issued its first Guidelines on Discrimination Because of Sex in 1965, it produced an instrument worthy of the Mad Men era, giving its imprimatur to some forms of sex-restrictive advertising.85 In these Guidelines, the Commission explained: “‘An overly literal interpretation of the prohibition might disrupt longstanding employment practices. . . . These guidelines are an effort to temper the bare language of the statute with common sense and a sympathetic understanding of the position and needs of women workers.’”86 Moreover, “‘[W]here the plain command of the statute is that there be no artificial classification of jobs by sex, the Commission feels bound to follow it, notwithstanding the fact that such segregation has, in particular cases, worked to the benefit of the woman worker.’”87

There was soon strong opposition to the Commission’s laggard approach to sex-discrimination. Commissioner Aileen Hernandez, the first woman appointed to this post and Attorney Sonia Pressman Fuentes,88 the first woman lawyer in the General Counsel’s office, protested and fought the battle from inside the EEOC.89 Ultimately, Commissioner Hernandez left the agency to help found the National Organization for Women.90 NOW’s Statement of Purpose made very clear that the organization was created in part as a reaction to the EEOC’s poor performance.91 The Statement declared:

Discrimination in employment on the basis of sex is now prohibited by federal law, in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But although nearly one-third of the cases brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the first year dealt with sex discrimination and the proportion is increasing dramatically, the Commission has not made clear its intention to enforce the law with the same seriousness on behalf of women as of other victims of discrimination.92

The Commission soon pivoted, and by 1980 issued new guidelines on sex discrimination recognizing sexual harassment as a cognizable theory.93 Looking back more than 50 years, it is now clear that if Congressman Smith introduced the provision as a joke, the joke was on him. This provision with scant legislative history has transformed the workplace by rendering unlawful sexual harassment,94 same-sex harassment,95 pay discrimination,96 promotions (to the “glass ceiling”),97 gender stereotyping,98 and most recently, select discrimination against the LGBT community.99 And when the Supreme Court in Gilbert said that Title VII did not extend to pregnancy discrimination, Congress, as party of the national discussion about the meaning of equality between the various branches of government, said “yes, it does!”100 The movement to enforce “because of sex” now prohibits a wide base of discriminatory practices rooted in deeply held stereotypes. However, it is well acknowledged that the expansion of “sex” owes much gratitude to the young people in Birmingham fighting for the rights of African Americans and the freedom struggle they embodied.101

As mentioned, the faith community was also central to the passage of the civil rights movement, from the social activism in the South, to a twenty-four-hour vigil by Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic seminarians in Washington, D.C., to the lobbying of Midwestern members of Congress during the filibuster.

Title VII also included a prohibition against religious discrimination.102 During the agency’s early years, the Commission advanced the view, borrowed from constitutional principles, that this provision required employers to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and practices unless it resulted in hardship to the employer.103 Congress amended the statute in 1972 to incorporate the EEOC’s guidelines into the statute.104 Since the definition of religion was added in 1972, litigants have challenged the three prongs of the prima facie case for religious discrimination as well as the employer’s burden to show undue hardship in an effort to further flesh out the skeletal statutory language.105

Most recently, the United States Supreme Court decided a high-profile case brought by the EEOC on behalf of Samantha Elauf, against Abercrombie and Fitch. When Elauf was seventeen years old, she interviewed for an Abercrombie Kids sales employee position (called “Model”) at her hometown shopping mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma. During her interview, Elauf wore a hijab in observation of her Islamic faith.106 The store manager who interviewed her liked her, rated her highly, and wanted to hire but was concerned that Elauf's hijab would be in violation of the company's “Look Policy.”107 Ultimately, when the store manager raised it with her district manager, she was instructed to lower the score and not to hire her.108

The EEOC filed suit in the district court and was successful.109 On appeal, however, the Tenth Circuit reversed and denied rehearing en banc.110 I was ecstatic when the Supreme Court granted certiorari over a case with only modest damages. When we exited the Court following oral arguments, I felt enormous pride that regardless of how the case turned out, this young woman, working through our agency, was able to pursue her convictions, thus reaffirming the power of the words “Equal Justice Under Law” engraved above the entrance. In the end, we won.111 Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the 8-1 decision and reaffirmed Title VII’s unique and quintessentially American promise of religious freedom and tolerance.112

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