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Pre 1965: Events Leading to the Creation of EEOC


EEOC was created in the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act was an omnibus bill addressing not only discrimination in employment, but also discrimination in voting, public accommodations, and education as well. The law was forged in an atmosphere of urgency. There was growing unrest in the country emanating from the pervasive and egregious racial discrimination and segregation exposed during the civil rights protests in the 1960s. The civil rights struggle was played out in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama and other southern cities and because of television witnessed by America. During the spring of 1963, the world watched as demonstrators were beaten, attacked by police dogs, sprayed with high pressure water hoses, and then arrested and jailed. The sight of this kind of brutality against peaceful demonstrators, including children, outraged Americans at home and tarnished the image of the United States abroad. Ironically, these images galvanized the nation by confronting it with its own failings.

On June 11, 1963, during the height of the civil rights protests and demonstrations, President John F. Kennedy went on television to address the nation. He gave a simple but eloquent message:

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and it is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated . . . [O]ne hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice. And this nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all of its citizens are free.

Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise. The events of Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently ignore them. We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met with repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations on the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in Congress, in your state and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. Next week I will ask the Congress of the United States to act, to make a commitment it has not fully made in this century to the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.

Eight days later, on June 19, 1963, President Kennedy sent comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress. Although opposition within the Congress was fierce, the need for civil rights legislation to address growing unrest in the country held sway. In August 1963, approximately 250,000 Americans of all races marched in Washington, D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The event, marked indelibly into the psyche of the nation by the famous "I Have A Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to symbolize the irresistible insistence for meaningful legislation to address the demand for racial equality and justice. This need, together with the mobilization of the civil rights and labor organizations and strong Presidential leadership, coalesced. The result, on July 2, 1964, was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was to become effective one year later.

Despite the urgency for such legislation, the process to pass it was not easy. The Administration faced stiff opposition in the Congress. The loss of President Kennedy in November 1963 to an assassin's bullet threatened to derail the legislation he championed. However, a new champion an unlikely one in the minds of most civil rights organizations was found in the person of the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson.

Five days after the assassination, while the nation was grieving its terrible loss, President Johnson eloquently invoked that tragedy in an effort to give some meaning to that most senseless of acts. President Johnson, addressing a joint session of Congress, stated:

We have talked long enough in this country about civil rights. It is time to write the next chapter and to write it in the books of law . . . . No eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.

Civil rights leaders, initially distrustful of President Johnson, soon came to recognize him as an ally and worked closely with him to ensure the Act's successful passage. Many legislative battles forced concessions and compromises to avoid a Senatorial filibuster that threatened to kill the entire Civil Rights Act.

Perhaps the most serious compromise occurred in the employment section of the proposed Civil Rights Act, a section that became known simply as Title VII, that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and retaliation. That compromise resulted in a bill that eliminated any real enforcement authority for EEOC. Instead, EEOC a five-member bipartisan commission was left only with power to receive, investigate, and conciliate complaints where it found reasonable cause to believe that discrimination had occurred. Where EEOC was unsuccessful in conciliating the complaints, the statute provided only that individuals could bring private lawsuits, and where EEOC found evidence of "patterns or practices" of discrimination, EEOC could then refer such matters to the Department of Justice for litigation.

As will be seen, the decades since 1964 have seen a steady, growing emergence of EEOC as the lead enforcement agency in the area of workplace discrimination, as Congress intended. Over the four decades that EEOC has existed, it has become a respected advocate for the communities it was created principally to serve. Those communities include all peoples of the nation because discrimination can occur to anyone of any race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, and of either sex. EEOC recognizes that as an agency of the government, it has a role of fairness not only to those protected classes whose forebears helped forge the alliances that resulted in the passage of civil rights legislation, but also to the employers and unions that are subject to EEOC jurisdiction.

EEOC has worked tirelessly to eliminate discrimination from America's workplaces since its creation. The hard work, idealism, and commitment of EEOC employees has been instrumental in widening the doors of employment opportunity for all Americans and helping to create a standard of living for this nation's diverse citizenry that is the envy of the world. But challenges still abound. In far too many workplaces, old ways die hard. Discrimination, while often boldly evident, persists now in subtle forms as well. The need for an agency like EEOC is as evident today as before 1964. This is the unfortunate but true state of affairs as the nation enters the new Millennium.

Next: 1965 - 1971

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