Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

U.S. President Lyndon Johnson passes out some of the 72 pens he used to sign the civil rights bill in Washington D.C. on July 2, 1964. From left standing are, Rep. Roland Libobati (D-Ill.), Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. Emmanuel Celler (D-N.Y.) and Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. 

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

This week’s Civil Rights Summit, sponsored by the LBJ Library, marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That act, together with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, transformed American law and society by outlawing discrimination in the workplace, in the voting booth and in housing.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had two main provisions — a ban on discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin in public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels, theaters and retail stores (Title II), and a ban on discrimination in the hiring, promotion and firing of workers (Title VII). The act also included provisions for enforcing Title VII in the form of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Before this act, employers and the owners of private establishments enjoyed the implicit approval of the federal government when they denied certain groups the privileges enjoyed by white men. During World War II, in some parts of the South, restaurant owners served meals to German prisoners of war who were being transported in the custody of American military officials but refused service to the black GIs who guarded those prisoners. Until 1964, employers routinely ran ads for job openings that said “no Negroes” or “no women” need apply. Many people of color, regardless of their formal education, could not aspire to high-paying jobs in law, business or education. African-Americans and Mexican-Americans remained confined to the most dangerous and disagreeable jobs in certain industries and excluded from whole categories of employment. White women inhabited a “pink collar ghetto” composed of elementary school teachers, nurses and secretaries and other clerical workers.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 looms large. In the months following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Johnson committed his formidable legislative prowess to bringing to a vote a measure that Kennedy had proposed in the summer of 1963. Johnson enlisted civil rights activists, journalists and other allies, and he personally cajoled, intimidated, threatened and pleaded with members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike.  He believed that, as chief executive, he need not apologize for his commitment to legislation that would make the U.S. a more fair and just society: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” he demanded to know.

Yet Johnson’s moral convictions, combined with his strong-armed tactics, do not fully account for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The president and other white Americans were moved by the courage of civil rights activists throughout the South — men, women and children who suffered beatings at the hands of angry mobs, the full force of water cannons deployed by local police and even murder by KKK members and other vigilantes and domestic terrorists. Freedom Riders, participants in lunch counter sit-ins and peaceful demonstrators, prodded Kennedy, and then Johnson and Congress, to act.

The effects of the 1964 act were uneven. Well-educated people of color and white women were arguably the most immediate and obvious beneficiaries of the new law. Between 1960 and 1980, the percentage of black women in clerical work tripled, and women of all races had greater access to jobs such as truck driving and coal mining,  which were previously all-male positions. Still, employers continued to assign blacks and other minorities to menial jobs, and union seniority and apprenticeship rules continued to work against the interests of job-seekers who weren’t white males. In 1974, the chronically understaffed and underfunded Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was staggering under the weight of 57,000 complaints of discrimination in the workplace.

Civil rights legislation also affected the nation’s political landscape. When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Johnson reportedly told his young Texas aide Bill Moyers something to the effect of, “There goes the South.” He was correct in predicting that the white South would desert the Democratic Party, although that transition did not become fully apparent until the 1980s, and it shows no sign of reversing itself in the near future.

Today, some observers hail what they call a “colorblind” society — one with a level playing field for all workers and voters. Yet the corrosive effects of centuries of slavery, discrimination and segregation remain very much in evidence, with high rates of concentrated poverty among minority populations. For many Americans, the place where they live is a signifier of the rights they enjoy, with poor people lacking access to quality public education, safe neighborhoods and decent health care.

What lessons does the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hold for us today? First, it is apparent that the 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution granting the former male slaves citizenship and voting rights were insufficient to guarantee them and their descendants those rights in practice.

Not until after World War II would the dramatic and peaceful protests of an aggrieved minority pierce the conscience of the nation and lead to decisive action among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. Johnson’s bold determination demonstrated what a chief executive could accomplish, with the right combination of moral outrage and legislative arm-twisting. And finally, we are reminded that throughout American history the federal government, albeit haltingly and imperfectly, has initiated some of the most significant measures promoting fairness and justice — the destruction of slavery, the enfranchisement of former slaves and women, the elimination of universal poverty among the elderly and the outlawing of egregious forms of discrimination in the workplace, in voting and in housing. The 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is without a doubt a cause for celebration among all Americans, and it is most fitting that four presidents are gathering at the LBJ Library to lead us in that celebration.

Jones is the Walter Prescott Webb chair in history and ideas and the Mastin Gentry White professor of Southern history.

Bev Kearney, former UT women’s track and field head coach, has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Texas Workforce Commission discrimination charge against the University. Kearney, the most successful coach in UT athletics history, was the first African-American to serve as a head coach at UT. After admitting to having “an intimate consensual relationship” with a female student-athlete on her team in 2002, she resigned on Jan. 5, as the University was preparing to begin her termination process.

Although the University appears to have disciplined Kearney in a manner consistent with its own policy, the allegations highlight a lack of transparency in the University’s handling of student-staff relationships.

Kearney’s attorney, Derek Howard, told the Austin American-Statesman that the complaint will reference UT football’s co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, a white male who admitted to an inappropriate consensual relationship with a female student trainer in 2009. Applewhite was discovered to have disclosed his relationship promptly and had his salary frozen as a result, after an open records request by the Texan brought UT Athletics documentation to light.

Howard said he filed the gender and race discrimination complaint on Kearney’s behalf Tuesday March 12. The TWC does not recognize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as a type of employment discrimination. The EEOC and TWC will have 180 days to investigate the allegations, after which time Howard said he will file a lawsuit against the University, regardless of any decisions reached by the agencies. The University, pursuant to its Handbook of Operating Procedures’ nondiscrimination policy, does prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Race, gender and sexual orientation are not the only significant differences between the facts of the Kearney and Applewhite cases. Whereas Applewhite quickly informed his supervisor of his “inappropriate conduct,” Kearney failed to disclose her relationship, which under University policy left her “subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

In January, Howard told the Texan that the University doesn’t cite Kearney’s “failure to report the relationship as the reason for firing her.” Instead, Howard said, “It’s because she had the relationship, period.” Indeed, Patti Ohlendorf, UT’s vice president for legal affairs, cited a rationale absent from the University’s Handbook of Operating Procedures for Kearney’s discipline: “In the case of a head coach and a student-athlete on his or her team, the University’s position is that that cannot be condoned in any event.”

Howard claims to know of at least 10 other instances of inappropriate relationships at UT. It remains to be seen whether Kearney was a victim of workplace discrimination. We hope that isn’t the case. But, allegations of discrimination aside, the University’s implementation of its policy is inadequate at best. The University risks the appearance of discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement if its policy is not made more transparent and realistic. Consensual student-staff relationships, a reality on our campus, have consequences too far-reaching to be dealt with haphazardly.