In 1963, after marches and lobbying by the civil rights community, President
John F. Kennedy publicly endorsed a civil rights bill, which would give
“all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open
to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and
similar establishments,” as well as “greater protection for
the right to vote.” President Kennedy delivered this speech after
a series of protests from the African American community, led by Martin
Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders, including the Birmingham
campaign in which students and children were attacked by police dogs and
high-pressure fire hoses during protests against segregation. As the bill
was pending in Congress, President Kennedy was assassinated.
President Lyndon B. Johnson picked up the torch and pushed the bill through
Congress. The bill, as passed, also included a provision to prevent discrimination
in employment, Title VII. Title VII prohibited discrimination against
employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion.
The bill faced a 54 day filibuster, before Democratic whip Hubert Humphrey
of Minnesota, the bill’s manager, gathered the 67 votes required
to end the debate and end the filibuster. The bill passed the Senate with
a vote of 71 to 29. President Johnson signed the bill into law on July
2, 1964. Title VII of the bill has furnished all employees a powerful
arrow in their quiver, with respect to employee rights. Employees have
the ability to seek reinstatement and back pay plus benefits for discrimination
based on race, color, sex, national origin or religion. Since the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 was amended in 1991, employees can also seek compensatory
damages and punitive damages in front of a jury. By allowing employees
to recover for attorney’s fees, the bill has motivated civil rights
attorneys to bring suits under the Act protecting employees from discrimination
and recovering damages for them. This bill has spawned other important
civil rights legislation, including the Age Discrimination in Employment
Act (“ADEA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
The ADEA protects employees over the age of 40 from discrimination based
on their age. The ADA also protects employees from discrimination based
on disability. Title VII has an application to both private and public
employers. In certain instances, Title VII claims can be brought in concert
with other federal laws, including 42 U.S.C. § 1981 which prohibits
race discrimination in the making and enforcing of contracts.
Because of the efforts of Dr. King, President Kennedy and President Johnson,
the playing field is closer to level for employees, who find protection
in the statute from workplace discrimination and harassment based on their
race, color, national origin, sex and religion. There is still much work
to be done though. Despite measures taken by the government to protect
employees, discrimination remains a problem in the workplace to this day.
The courts today are far too prone to dismiss cases brought under this
important statute. New legislation and new protections must be put into
place to protect workers of all backgrounds and to allow them to bring
their cases to trial, where necessary.