Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law banning employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. For those of us who devote their careers to eliminating discrimination in the workplace—and really for all Americans—it is an important day.
The provision of the Civil Rights Act concerning discrimination in employment is commonly called “Title VII.” In relevant part, Title VII reads:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Put in simple terms, Title VII means employers may not make employment decisions based upon an employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In the years that followed, Congress also passed laws banning employment discrimination on the basis of age, disability, and pregnancy, along with other critical workplace protections. However, it is Title VII that forms the foundation of our anti-discrimination law today.
It seems so obvious now that employment discrimination should be against the law. But the passage of the Civil Rights Act was not a foregone conclusion. Not entirely unlike the recent battle over the Affordable Care Act, when it was initially proposed by President Kennedy, the Civil Rights Act was very controversial. It faced furious opposition in Congress, which lasted over a year and included a nearly two-month-long filibuster. President Johnson is largely credited with ultimately shepherding the Civil Rights Act through Congress and into law.
Upon signing the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson made remarks that still ring true. He explained that the law’s “purpose is to promote a more abiding commitment to freedom, a more constant pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity.” He also explained that the Act would require something from all Americans going forward. He called it “a challenge to all of us to go to work in our communities and our States, in our homes and in our hearts, to eliminate the last vestiges of injustice in our beloved country.”
Despite the progress we have made, we have not yet fully met that challenge. So while today is surely a day to celebrate an important milestone in our Nation’s history, it is also a day to remember that the promise of equality is not self-fulfilling. That promise will instead be fully realized only through the continued hard work, devotion, and courage of those willing to stand against injustice—both lawyer and employee alike.