The Long Road: A Brief History of Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964

Recent court cases have been forced to contend with the scope of Title VII’s protections. However, to understand how Title VII operates and how it may be interpreted in the future, it is important to understand how Title VII was formed and why it was passed in the first place. 

U.S. Congress building

To begin with, it is important to understand that the idea of protection against workplace discrimination is a relatively new idea. In the early twentieth century, because there were few, if any, laws that prohibited such discrimination, the courts often gave deference to employers to regulate their workplace as they saw fit, with few if any restrictions being placed on their ability to regulate the workplace.1)See Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905). This empowered employers to discriminate against applicants and employees on the basis of race and sex.2)Graham Boone, Labor law highlights, 1915-2015, Monthly Labor Review (Oct. 2015), https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/pdf/labor-law-highlights-1915-2015.pdf.)  In response to this trend and rising unemployment during the Great Depression, Congress eventually passed the Unemployment Relief Act of 1933, which stated that “in employing citizens for the purpose of this Act, no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed.”3)Act of March 31, 1933 (Unemployment Relief Act), Pub. L. No. 73-5, 48 Stat. 22. However, this Act was largely ineffective as there were no enforcement mechanisms created to carry it out.4)Major Velma Cheri Gay, “50 Years Later … Still Interpreting the Meaning of “Because of Sex’ Within Title VII and Whether It Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination”, 73 A.F.L. Rev. 61, 109 (2015). Under increasing pressure from black leaders who still faced discrimination under this Act, President Roosevelt eventually signed Executive Order 8802, which “established the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) with the powers to investigate complaints of discrimination and to take appropriate steps.”5)Major Velma Cheri Gay, “50 Years Later … Still Interpreting the Meaning of “Because of Sex’ Within Title VII and Whether It Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination”, 73 A.F.L. Rev. 61, 109 (2015). Despite these improvements, employment discrimination still ran rampant in the United States and states began adopting their own laws to prohibit such discrimination in the workplace.6)Chuck Henson, Title VII Works-That’s Why We Don’t Like It, 2 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 41, 54 (2012). And against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the federal government and activists began pushing for a federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and other such traits.7)Gay, supra note 4, at 61. As a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts, Congress passed the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 (hereinafter “Title VII”).8)Gay, supra note 4, at 61; see also D. Wendy Greene, Categorically Black, White, or Wrong: “Misperception Discrimination” and the State of Title VII Protection, 47 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 87, 94 (2013).

Since its inception, Title VII has been regarded as a seminal piece of legislation. The law set out to prohibit discrimination based on certain characteristics by mandating that a covered employer would violate Title VII if it they:

  • 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 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.9)42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2.

Title VII also states that an employer violates the Act when it is possible to show “that race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was a motivating factor for any employment practice.”10)42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2. And the courts have found that “Title VII expressly protects individuals against race, color, religion, sex, or national origin discrimination both before and during the employment relationship.”11)Greene, supra note 9, at 95 (citing Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 346 (1997).  

While the Act has been amended since its passage in 1964, the main thrust of the Act has remained the same: to prohibit discrimination based on what have been deemed arbitrary characteristics and classifications. How the courts will continue to view these classifications, however, remains to be seen.

If you feel as if you have been discriminated against in the workplace in violation of Title VII or other laws, you should consult with legal counsel immediately to discuss your possible courses of action.

References   [ + ]

1. See Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905).
2. Graham Boone, Labor law highlights, 1915-2015, Monthly Labor Review (Oct. 2015), https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/pdf/labor-law-highlights-1915-2015.pdf.
3. Act of March 31, 1933 (Unemployment Relief Act), Pub. L. No. 73-5, 48 Stat. 22.
4, 5. Major Velma Cheri Gay, “50 Years Later … Still Interpreting the Meaning of “Because of Sex’ Within Title VII and Whether It Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination”, 73 A.F.L. Rev. 61, 109 (2015).
6. Chuck Henson, Title VII Works-That’s Why We Don’t Like It, 2 U. Miami Race & Soc. Just. L. Rev. 41, 54 (2012).
7. Gay, supra note 4, at 61.
8. Gay, supra note 4, at 61; see also D. Wendy Greene, Categorically Black, White, or Wrong: “Misperception Discrimination” and the State of Title VII Protection, 47 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 87, 94 (2013).
9. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2.
10. 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2.
11. Greene, supra note 9, at 95 (citing Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 346 (1997).
Share This Article: