Then & Now: 75 Years of Employment Law Developments in Civil Rights

ThenNow2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act prohibited discrimination in employment based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. A landmark in American legislative and cultural history, it resulted from decades of hard fought battles on the streets, in the voting booth and in the courts. Employment law and the American workplace would never be the same.

“Equality before the law” broadly defines the Civil Rights Movement over the last 75 years, including the Civil Rights Act. This month we explore employment law changes to secure employment protections for various groups historically discriminated against.

Between the Civil War and 1939, no new national laws addressed civil rights for minority groups. Jim Crow laws proliferated, as did other forms of widespread discrimination, isolating black Americans. A “separate but equal” policy in schooling, housing, and workplaces was widely accepted among white Americans. Even as World War II focused Americans on a common external enemy, the military remained segregated and employment discrimination was tolerated. But, the war years prompted important employment rights precedents for minorities. The 1947 President’s Commission on Civil Rights recommended an end to military segregation, using it as an “instrument of social change”. Then in 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 mandating equal treatment of all military service members and General Eisenhower ordered the integration of the military. Both of these orders were precedent-setting steps toward securing broader civil rights and equal employment opportunity in society.

Post-war America resumed old patterns of social behavior, stoking unrest among those who had fought for their country and experienced new employment opportunities. Events in the 1950s emboldened many to expand civil rights. The 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education ruling made segregation in publicly funded schools unconstitutional. Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience in 1955 ignited boycotts that successfully ended bus segregation. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 was the first such legislation since Restoration after the Civil War.The establishment of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 brought focus to previously uncoordinated efforts. With a platform of non-violence and civil disobedience to achieve social and political goals, the SCLC pressed for federal action in all areas of life, especially employment opportunity. These events inspired the civil rights movement and momentous employment law changes to come in the 1960s and that continue to this day. Through it all, MSEC has guided members through an ever-evolving employment law landscape.

Key developments in civil rights and employment law since 1960:

1960: President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 prohibited discrimination in federal government employment and created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Affirmative Action was introduced as a concept and immediately affected federal government practices.

1963: Passage of the Equal Pay Act prohibited discrimination based on gender.

1964: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Title VII of the Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to address employment inequities.

1965: Executive Order 11246 mandates federal government contractors take “affirmative action” to recruit, hire, and promote minority employees; in 1968 expanded to women.

1967: Age Discrimination and Employment Act prohibits discrimination against people aged 40 and above.

1988: Civil Rights Restoration Act expands nondiscrimination laws into private institutions receiving federal funds.

1990: Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based against individuals with disabilities.

1991: Civil Rights Act of 1991 permits monetary damages for victims of intentional discrimination.

2008: ADA Amendments Act updates the ADA, requiring an expansive view of what constitutes a disability.

2014 Snapshot:

  • “Ban the box” initiatives aim to end perceived employment discrimination based on criminal history.
  • Municipal laws passed prohibiting employment practices that discriminate against the long-term unemployed.

The recent inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity (GLBT) as statuses requiring civil rights protections has been more controversial. Federal protection currently does not exist for GLBT status and protection varies greatly by state, or even within states. Efforts to mandate employment protection on all fronts are ongoing.

GLBT civil rights key dates:

1953: President Eisenhower signs Executive Order 10450 prohibiting individuals from working in the federal government or with any contractors, based on their sexual orientation.

1980: Democratic National Convention agenda asserts employment rights should not be curtailed on basis of sexual orientation.

1982: Wisconsin becomes first state to outlaw sexual orientation discrimination.

1998: President Clinton issues executive order prohibiting employment discrimination on basis of sexual orientation in the federal government.

2013: Employment Non-Discrimination Act introduced in Congress to prohibit employment discrimination on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

2014 Snapshot:

  • Sexual orientation remains unprotected by federal law.
  • Laws in 31 states prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
  • Municipal laws afford greater protections (e.g., Austin prohibits discrimination but Texas law does not).