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Landmark Civil Rights Act is 50 years old this month

Fifty years ago, in July 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.  Through this landmark piece of legislation, the federal government sought, among other things, to dismantle abhorrent “Jim Crow” laws in the South which rendered African Americans second class citizens.

A strong minority of legislators in Congress fought bitterly to try to defeat the Civil Rights Act.  They argued that the Civil Rights Act would unconstitutionally usurp state rights and impair individual liberty.  Thanks, in part, to the work of civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lewis, who helped the entire nation and its members of Congress to see the horrors of segregation and Jim Crow, enough members of Congress banded together to pass the law.

Interestingly, before the Civil Rights Act passed, opponents to the law added an amendment to bar sex discrimination in employment.  This tactic backfired.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination, passed with not only landmark protections against race discrimination, religious discrimination, and national origin discrimination, but also with landmark protections against sex discrimination.

Discussing the need for the Civil Rights Act, President Johnson said the following:
“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.”

The Civil Rights Act has helped to make the United States a more just, more fair, and more prosperous place.  But, the words of President Johnson above apply today just as they did fifty years ago.  Today, most Americans support the policies that underlie the Civil Rights Act.  Nevertheless, vigorous enforcement of the Civil Rights Act continues to be necessary.  Far too many women are subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace or receive less pay for the same work that men do.  Far too many religious people are forced to choose between their job and practicing their faith.  Far too many racial minorities are subjected to discrimination due to baseless and bigoted stereotypes about them being “lazy” or “violent.”  In other words, as late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy said, “civil rights remain America’s great unfinished business.”

The Maine Employee Rights Group works on the front lines of this continuing struggle for equality in the workplace.  We are committed to stamping out unlawful discrimination in the workplace in all its forms.  If you need help in this regard, give us a call.