On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the most important civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction Era – was signed into law. The Act was the culmination of years of opposition to the segregation and discrimination that denied people employment and access to public accommodations – hotels, restaurants, retail establishments, parks, recreational facilities and transportation – based upon their color, sex, religious beliefs or national origin.
With Dr. Martin Luther King looking on, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed:
“Our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders. We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings-not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. … But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
Title VII of the Act prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex and made it illegal to retaliate against those who exercise the rights guaranteed by Title VII.
Despite the passage of time, and other civil rights laws banning discrimination on the basis of age and disability, we haven’t yet reached the goals of Title VII and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The EEOC – the federal agency established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – receives nearly 100,000 charges of discrimination each year. Women are still denied opportunities or paid less than their male counter-parts. People are denied employment because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, age or disabilities. And many employees suffer on-the-job harassment because they belong to a particular group.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day, be reminded that his final struggle was fought on behalf of working people. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support sanitation workers who were on strike to protest meager wages and deplorable working conditions.
In his last speech, Dr. King, referencing a bomb threat that delayed his arrival, seemed to foreshadow his own personal demise when he proclaimed:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We still have a ways to go before we reach the promised land of equal employment opportunity.