1960s America will long be remembered for widespread protests against racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, the “make love, not war” generation, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The principal anti-discrimination law in the country, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits segregation in public places and bans employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It also called for the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), authorized to sue employers on behalf of workers with discrimination claims.
Federal bans on discrimination began with the passage of constitutional amendments in 1865 to 1870. The amendments banned slavery and granted former slaves full rights (“equal protection”) as Americans. However, many states circumvented these promised principles by implementing special taxes, literacy tests and other measures to bar African-Americans from voting and exercising other rights. Some state governments forced segregation and condoned the use of violence by vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Founded in the 1930s, the American civil rights movement gained its first real foothold in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that racial segregation in public schools (the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine) was unconstitutional. Yet, Southern states, claiming separation of the races was their prerogative, defied the decision by continuing to impose tax, voting and other measures that effectively perpetuated segregation.
Regardless, the American civil rights movement continued to gain momentum. In the early 60s, demonstrations took place throughout the country, including the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, protests where police employed dogs, clubs and high-pressure fire hoses to suppress nonviolent demonstrators, including children.
The brutal tactics of the Birmingham police lead President John Kennedy to propose the measure, signed into law as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by his successor Lyndon Johnson.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains the central anti-discrimination law in the country. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act is this state’s counterpart. All such laws stem from the premise that persons should be judged for their competence on the job and not by factors of race, religion and the many other characteristics deemed arbitrary and irrelevant to workplace qualification.