BY BARBARA LAU Fifty years ago today President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law that prohibited discrimination in employment and public accommodations based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It was a watershed moment in the African American freedom struggle but it also has significance to the quest for gender equality.
The original bill did not cover discrimination based on sex but Pauli Murray, Alice Paul and other feminists lobbied vigorously for this addition to Title VII. Southern Democrats in the US Senate led the opposition to the bill and the amendment. Some people considered the addition of sex as a protected category as an attempt to kill the bill entirely.
Pauli Murray grew up in Durham, NC within the influential African American Fitzgerald family where she learned to fight for equality and access to education and economic advancement. Family members– including influential female and male educators and business people in brick-making, banking, and real estate– taught her what African Americans and women could accomplish if given equal access to opportunity.
Murray wrote a 25-page memorandum in support of retaining the amendment to prohibit discrimination in employment because of sex. She supported her arguments with 17 statistical tables and 3 appendices, primarily reasoning that discrimination based on sex caused the same harm as discrimination based on race. “The costly lesson of American history,” Murray wrote, “is that human rights are indivisible. They cannot be affirmed for one social group and ignored in the case of another without tragic consequences.”
Senate Democrats led by Robert Byrd of West Virginia attempted a filibuster resulting in the longest Senate debate (57 working days) in US history. Congress finally passed a compromise bill that lessened some of the enforcement power of the statute. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was established as a direct result of this legislation did little to enforce the sex discrimination statutes. On the flip side, some argue that this lack of enforcement led to stronger organizations focused on women’s rights.
Pauli Murray’s legal arguments provided a foundation for a feminist legal strategy. While at Howard University Law School in the 1940s she coined the term Jane Crow to describe her own experience of discrimination as African American and female. In 1965, she and colleague Mary O. Eastwood penned the influential article, Jane Crow and the Law: Sex Discrimination and Title VII, for the George Washington Law Review.
The debate about civil rights based on race and gender rages on. Many people, inside and outside North Carolina, perceive recent actions by the North Carolina State Legislature as particularly harmful to women and people of color, including voter suppression, cuts in Medicaid and unemployment compensation, and attacks on reproductive rights. It’s time to dust off these arguments, get out our pens, and join with others to move the needle in the direction of dignity and equality.
Barbara Lau is the Director of the Pauli Murray Project, a community based human rights initiative of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. She is also the lead developer of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, a newly formed non-profit organization focused on transforming Murray’s childhood home into a center for history, education, the arts and social mobilization.