Ensuring Equal Opportunity in Employment: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Ten years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education—where the doctrine of “separate but equal” was declared unconstitutional—the vast majority of African Americans and other people of color in this country were still being denied equal treatment under the law.  Jim Crow laws remained pervasive throughout the South, and in all parts of the nation African Americans often remained relegated to the status of second-class citizens.  Throughout this ten-year period, there was increased activism around the continued persistence of racial discrimination, including the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins at public counters and other facilities around the South, the Freedom Rides on interstate buses, and of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

 One of the key demands of these protests and acts of civil disobedience was the passage of federal civil rights legislation.  Given the rampant resistance to desegregation, greater legal protections and civil rights enforcement mechanisms were absolutely necessary if African Americans were to enjoy the rights and privileges of their citizenship. Southern states were active participants in discrimination in voting, housing, and other areas, while local, state, and federal governments were completely apathetic to private sector segregation. The idea of “separate but equal” may have been struck down by the Supreme Court, but throughout the country it persisted.

Thus, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – along with Brown and the Voting Rights Act – is one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement, clearing the way for people of color to live their lives free of discrimination.  Title VII, which banned employers from discriminating on the basis of race, was and is a central component of the Civil Rights Act.  However, while Congress made huge strides in passing the Civil Rights Act, initially, the legislation itself was weak and almost unenforced.  It would take a massive legal campaign – hundreds of discrimination complaints with the newly-formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, dozens of federal lawsuits, and years of drawn out litigation – to hold employers accountable for discrimination and enforce equality of opportunity as Title VII stipulated.

 Jack Greenberg and Julius ChambersLDF led this massive legal campaign, one that draws parallels to the series of cases leading to victory in Brown in 1954. Countless LDF staff members, cooperating attorneys, and allies filed dozens of cases in the early years following the Act’s passage as part of the fight to make equal access to employment a reality. This group of individuals includes living legends like former LDF President and Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, who argued Griggs v. Duke Power Company in front of the Supreme Court, and those who are no longer with us, such as former LDF President and Director-Counsel Julius Chambers. Hundreds of other hardworking young attorneys and organizers committed time and energy to the decades-long battle against employment discrimination.

 Griggs, decided seven years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was one of LDF’s most famous and important victories.  Griggs established the disparate-impact standard – the rule that even facially race neutral policies may result in unfair, unnecessary, and unlawful discrimination.  The fight to end employment discrimination, however, did not end with Griggs. A series of conservative Supreme Court decisions over the next several years chipped slowly away at the foundations LDF and others had worked so hard to build.  With another push from advocates and like-minded legislators, however, Congress renewed the promise of the Civil Rights Act in 1991, codifying the ideas of Griggs into law.

 LDF demonstrated the continuing need for the disparate impact standard first announced in Griggs in Lewis v. Chicago, a lawsuit challenging Chicago’s discriminatory administration of an entry-level firefighter exam that resulted in qualified African-American firefighter applicants being denied the opportunity to work for the Chicago Fire Department.  In 2004, a federal district court held that Chicago violated Title VII’s prohibition against disparate-impact discrimination because the City could not show that the established cut-off score was related to the selection of qualified applicants.  Chicago appealed on the grounds that the plaintiffs’ claims were time-barred.  The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with LDF’s then-Director-Counsel, the late John Payton, arguing for the plaintiffs.  The Justices decided in favor of the plaintiffs in a unanimous opinion.   Finally, after years of further litigation, in 2013, LDF and co-counsel secured more than $51 million in back-pay to compensate the Lewis class members.

Today, Title VII remains an important tool for enforcing equal opportunity in the workplace.  While Lewis provided an example of disparate-impact discrimination, in other cases, African Americans are intentionally and explicitly excluded from employment opportunities because of their race.  Such was the case with Nicole Cogdell, a top-ten ranked manager at a national clothing chain, who was fired because, as an African American, she did not fit the company’s “brand image.” In 2013, LDF helped Nicole and other African-American managers at the company win a settlement after incriminating emails showed that top company executives directed senior managers to fire African-American store managers in order to decrease the number and visibility of African-American store employees.  While racial discrimination is not usually so blatant, Nicole’s experience is not isolated.  93,727 charges were filed with the EEOC just last year, 35.3% of which raised claims of race discrimination.

Thus, while we take time this year to acknowledge the significant and tangible progress we as a nation have made toward racial justice, we are reminded daily of the struggle that continues for equality and justice in the workplace. African Americans are still much more likely to be passed over for jobs than whites, even when employers are presented with two candidates with exactly the same credentials.  Moreover, unfair, allegedly “colorblind” screening methods consistently bar African Americans from jobs in disproportionate numbers. Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, employment discrimination is a reality far too many Americans deal with every day. As we celebrate past victories, we are reminded of the remaining work ahead and the need to stay dedicated and vigilant to causes of freedom and justice.

 The fight for justice in the workplace continues today through LDF’s Economic Justice initiative, challenging increasingly complicated discriminatory measures that continue to unfairly limit job opportunities for African Americans and other people of color.  On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, we both celebrate the history and hard work of the past and continue to fight in the courts and in the workplace today.