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50 Years Later: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VII

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.

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