In the 1960s, employment discrimination in America was explicit, overt, and widespread — as it had been for generations past. Entire occupations were commonly understood to be "white jobs" (managerial, professional, skilled blue-collar, etc); or "Colored work" (janitor, maid, Northern garbage, sewage & so on); or "women's work" (teacher, clerical, waitress, sales-counter). White and male jobs paid better than nonwhite and female work and held significantly higher social-status.
Occupations assigned to nonwhites tended to be menial, dirty, onerous, and in many cases unsafe because — by clear unspoken assumption — Black, Latino, Asian, and Indian lives were worth less than white ones. Most whites never spared a moment's thought about this, for them it was the natural order of things that black, brown, yellow and red people cleaned, served, and endured for white people.
When personal connections failed, newspaper "Help Wanted" ads were how most people looked for work, and prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act many papers divided their employment notices into sections such as: "White Men" "White Women" and "Colored." Or job postings might explicitly state racial requirements. For example, [SECOND COOK, white, for sorority house, UCLA.]
For generations, civil rights organizations had fought against job-discrimination and sought to increase employment opportunities for nonwhites. In 1941, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had threatened to mount a massive march on Washington over segregation in the armed forces and racist federal hiring practices. They accepted a compromise offered by President Roosevelt — a Fair Employment Act which prohibited racial discrimination by all federal agencies, unions, and companies engaged in war-related work — but the military would remain segregated throughout World War II. As a result, jobs at war plants and in the federal civil service were finally opened to nonwhites.
In the 1960s, the Freedom Movement campaigned against occupational inequalities. Though it's little noted today, the March on Washington in August of 1963 was a march for "Jobs and Freedom" and three of the ten march demands were related to employment discrimination. While jobs-related Freedom Movement demonstrations were usually aimed at ending discrimination and obtaining positions for nonwhite workers at specific individual employers, by the later half of 1963 they were also applying pressure on Congress and the White House to include meaningful employment protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 then being debated first in the House and later in the Senate.
In Los Angeles, CORE, NAACP, United Civil Rights Committee (UCRC), and the Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) all engaged in jobs-related, anti-discrimination direct action campaigns against a variety of targets including the Safeway and Thriftymart grocery chains, Bank of America, Van de Kamps, and many others. Some of these campaigns were successful, wining non-discrimination and hiring agreements. Others were not.
Though much weaker than what Movement activists had demanded, the Civil Rights Act contained Title VII which barred some forms of explicit discrimination by large employers engaged in interstate commerce. Small employers and state & local governments were excluded from coverage.
For employers covered by the Act, overt discrimination on the basis of race or gender was prohibited. Want-ads and job requirements could no longer specify "white" or "male." All occupations and promotions by covered employers were (in theory) opened to all races and genders. Labor unions could no longer overtly use race or gender as a bar to membership, nor could they continue to maintain segregated white and "colored" locals. More importantly, the social-consciousness of majority white culture began to shift against in-your-face racial and gender discrimination even by employers not covered by Title VII jurisdiction.
But covert discrimination continued. And so long as it was concealed behind a facade of pious denials it was deemed acceptable by a significant portion of whites and males. Some employers claimed they could not find "qualified" Blacks, Latinos, or women, and there was (and continues to be) much litigation over what constitutes "discrimination." To avoid legal penalties yet still retain workforces that were almost entirely white or male, some companies and government agencies adopted a strategy of "tokenism," hiring a few Blacks, Latinos, or women in visible positions, but limiting the number to the smallest they could get away with.
While Title VII prohibited labor unions from overtly using race or gender as a bar to membership, in most cases you had to have the job before you could join the union and in some cases employers and labor-unions connived with each other to maintain discrimination. Moreover, the Act did not address — and most unions fiercely resisted — any kind of preferential hiring or promotion or affirmative action to compensate for past discrimination.
Even though the Act had serious shortcomings, income for nonwhites and women rose significantly in the decades after 1964 as more and better jobs became available — in part due to the Act and in part due to social dynamics created by the Freedom Movement. Looking back from a distance of half a century, ending overt, explicit employment discrimination was one of the Civil Rights Movement's most significant victories. Yet despite these gains, income and the unemployment rate for Blacks and Latinos continued (and still continues) to lag behind that of whites. Average income levels for women also rose significantly, though women as a group still earn less than men and Black and Latino women lag behind white women.
Those income gains, however, were primarily by nonwhites and women entering occupations and obtaining higher-paid jobs that had previously been barred to them which is the problem the Movement focused on. But the wages of traditional "colored" and "women's" work — particularly in the agriculture and service sectors — remained stagnant or actually declined in purchasing power and the few Freedom Movement efforts to form unions and win higher pay for those at the very bottom of the economic pyramid had no lasting success. Thus the benefits of the Freedom Movement's employment-discrimination efforts as codified in the Civil Rights Act went almost entirely to the better educated and acculturated, leaving the sharecroppers, maids, and unskilled manual laborers who were the backbone of the Freedom Movement in the South behind.
Portions of this article adapted from "Troublemaker" Memories of the Freedom Movement.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford.