By Hauser, Susan G. | Workforce Management, May 2012 | Go to article overview
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Hauser, Susan G., Workforce Management

To celebrate Workforce Management's 90th anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at important workforce-related issues with a then-and-now theme. This installment examines civil rights in the 1960s and today. Next month, we look at the 1970s and women in the workforce. To read the full version of this story, go to

JUST BEFORE NOON on Aug. 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people began slowly moving toward the Lincoln Memorial. Eventually, they would completely surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool all the way to the shade trees that surround it. They were mostly African-American, but they represented all creeds and colors of U.S. citizens. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the largest demonstration ever staged in the nation's capital.

The last speaker of the day was a preacher from Atlanta. His words soared out above the peaceful crowd. Standing below the statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. laid emphasis on freedom, the freedom he dreamed would someday "ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city."

Unspoken but not forgotten was the march's emphasis on jobs. As the civil rights bill introduced by President John F. Kennedy languished in Congress, the marchers called for a major public works program to provide jobs to African-Americans, the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring, and a $2 minimum wage. Congress finally acted to approve the bill, and the following year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite that milestone, racial disparities and tensions continue to plague the workplace nearly 50 years later.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the concepts of civil rights and workplace equality had barely taken hold in a society resistant to change. It wasn't until the 1960s, when the social fabric of the United States was torn by waves of unrest, that the hazy notion of civil rights was transformed into a powerful nationwide movement.

An article from January 1951, in Personnel Journal, Workforce Management's forbear, shares observations about "an increasingly useful group of our country's workers," namely black industrial workers. But the author, Alvin W. Rose of North Carolina College at Durham (now North Carolina Central University, a traditionally African-American institution) who interviewed black industrial workers for the article, cautioned employers that attitudes and aspirations of black people needed to be taken into greater account, simply because America was changing.

Change was slow but inexorable. In 1961, Kennedy ordered companies doing business with the government to take "affirmative action" to create a more diverse workforce. But even when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, the "action" part of affirmative action had yet to be clearly defined.

Thus, since 1964, workforce civil rights have come to be defined through legislation and litigation. Since the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created in 1965, it has filed lawsuits on behalf of employees under certain conditions. Title VII also allows employees to file private lawsuits.

Lawsuits and U.S. Supreme Court decisions have changed the employment landscape, particularly in Southern states, which drew the nation's attention during the civil rights movement. Segregated workplaces, particularly in government agencies, eventually became integrated, according to Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

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