Post from Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic - January 2019
On this, the 33rd year of the federal holiday recognizing the birth and life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I have been thinking a lot about the work of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in carrying out his life's work and his hopes and dreams for the nation, for civil rights, and for the brotherhood of man.
Of course, our realm at the EEOC is civil rights in employment - the law applied to the workplace. In that context, I recall a passage I was struck by some years ago from "Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, 1954-63," the Pulitzer Prize winning first volume of Taylor Branch's three-part, magisterial history of the Civil Rights Movement.
In chapter six of that volume, Branch describes Dr. King's next efforts to advance civil rights in 1957 after the Montgomery Bus Boycott had, as Branch describes it, "dissolved into memory to a quaint story of tired feet and empty buses." That February of 1957, Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement were imploring President Eisenhower to call a White House conference on compliance with integration rulings - especially for the South.
As Branch recounts:
Eisenhower was in Newport, Rhode Island, prior to heading for a two-week hunting vacation in southern Georgia. On his way out of a church service in which he heard a sermon on the need for new civil rights laws, Ike shook hands with the Navy chaplain and said, "You can't legislate morality." News of this instantly famous comment crossed the ministers' telegrams. Although it dismayed King, the remark provided him with the grist for numerous sermons about how the President misconstrued the essential function of law. Eisenhower was correct that racial brotherhood was ultimately an issue of conscience and morality, King said, but the purpose of law was to establish justice in the lesser realm of ordinary life. All laws, whether seeking to prohibit murder or income tax evasion, governed external behavior rather than subjective attitudes. Therefore, King argued, the proper purpose of the desired civil rights laws was to take down "Whites Only signs and to secure the ballot for Negroes who wanted to vote."
"A law may not make a man love me," said King, "but it can stop him from lynching me."
Dr. King's efforts, and those of the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, culminated that year in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 - at that time, the nation's first civil rights bill in 82 years. Seven years later, those continued efforts resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishment of the EEOC.
And so, on this MLK Day, let us honor Dr. King by remembering that our work at the EEOC exists and is so important because of his understanding of why the law matters so much and the difference it can make (to paraphrase) in even the lesser realm of people's ordinary lives.
Please know I value the important work you all do, and I hope you are doing well.
Victoria A. Lipnic