The Early Years
In June 1941, on the eve of World War II, President Franklin
D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802 prohibiting government
contractors from engaging in employment discrimination based on
race, color or national origin. This order is the first
presidential action ever taken to prevent employment discrimination
by private employers holding government contracts. The Executive
Order applies to all defense contractors, but contains no
enforcement authority. President Roosevelt signs the Executive
Order primarily to ensure that there are no strikes or
demonstrations disrupting the manufacture of military supplies as
the country prepares for War.
In July 1948, President Harry S. Truman orders the
desegregation of the Armed Forces by Executive Order 9981. The
order requires that there be "equality of treatment and opportunity
for all persons in the armed services without regard to race,
color, religion or national origin." America's fighting forces are
actually integrated only when the Korean War begins in 1952.
In May 1954, a unanimous Supreme Court decides Brown v. Board of
Education of Topeka, Kansas striking down all local,
state, and federal laws that enforce racial segregation in public
education. Newly-appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren authors the
opinion of the Court, stating: "We conclude that in the field of
public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place.
Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . . ."
In December 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman,
refuses to give up her seat to a white man on a municipal bus in
Montgomery, Alabama. She is arrested and is to be tried for
disturbing the peace. The arrest prompts a group of black citizens
to initiate a one-day boycott of the public bus system which leads
to a series of pickets and eventually a year-long boycott of the
Montgomery public bus system and selected merchants. The boycott is
successful and Montgomery's public bus system is desegregated. A
Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., helps organize the
boycott and by 1957, Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership
Conference has begun to press for equal rights across the
In September 1957, angry white mobs in Little Rock,
Arkansas, opposing the court ordered desegregation of public
schools, threaten violence. President Dwight D. Eisenhower orders
federal troops to protect nine black students integrating Central
High School in Little Rock.
In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy signs Executive
Order 10925 prohibiting federal government contractors from
discriminating on account of race and establishing the President's
Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Departing from previous
presidential directives, this Order grants the Committee, initially
chaired by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, authority to impose
sanctions for violations of the Executive Order. President Kennedy
states this enforcement authority signals a new "determination to
end job discrimination once and for all."
In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. selects
Birmingham, Alabama as the location for continuing civil rights
protests. Local law enforcement authorities attack the peaceful
demonstrators using high pressure water hoses and police dogs.
These scenes, broadcast nightly on the national news, stir the
public conscience and bring about a demand for change.
In June 1963, Congress passes the Equal Pay Act of 1963
(EPA) protecting men and women who perform substantially equal work
in the same establishment from sex-based wage discrimination. The
EPA is the first national civil rights legislation focusing on
employment discrimination. The Department of Labor has
responsibility for enforcement until 1978.
|Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has
given the Negro people a bad check ...
It would be fatal for the Nation to overlook the urgency of the
movement and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. So I
say to you ... I still have a dream ... deeply rooted in the
American dream that one day this Nation will rise up and live out
the true meaning of its creed.... We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In August 1963, approximately 250,000 Americans of all races
march in Washington, D.C. for racial equality and justice. The
large peaceful gathering assembles in front of the Lincoln Memorial
to hear speakers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic
"I Have a Dream" speech. This is the largest protest for racial
justice in the country's history up to that time.
In September 1963, four black children are killed when
Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist church is fire bombed
by individuals opposing integration efforts.