This timeline addresses milestones in the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, and immigration and citizenship.
About 300 activists, including 40 men, gather for a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to strategize how to obtain women’s suffrage nationwide. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, along with 60 other women and 32 men, sign and issue the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, which calls for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women. Former slave Frederick Douglass addresses the crowd, showing unity between the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. Two years later, the first National Women’s Rights Convention is held in Worcester, Mass., and attracts more than 1,000 participants.
In Roberts v. Boston, African American parents challenge Massachusetts laws that mandate separate schools for children based solely on race. After a court loss, they begin a fight for legislation to end public school segregation, succeeding in 1855.
The Massachusetts legislature passes the “Bill for school desegregation by the Board of Aldermen and the Committee of Public Instruction.” Passed after a decade-long effort by black parents and their white allies, the bill states that “in determining the qualifications of scholars to be admitted into any public school, or any district school in this Commonwealth, no distinction shall be made on account of race, color, or religious opinions of the applicant or scholar.” The bill is signed into law.
The U.S. Supreme Court decides the landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case. Born a slave, Scott had lived with his owner in the slave state of Missouri. After his first owner died, he moved with his new one to the free state of Illinois and later to the free territory of Wisconsin. Several years later, after his second owner died, he returned to Missouri. In 1847, he sued for his freedom, pointing to the years he lived in free territories. Ten years later, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that slaves are property and have no right to sue. The Court says that people of African ancestry can never become U.S. citizens. It also invalidates the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which restricted slavery in certain territories. The Court further explains that slave owners cannot be deprived of their property (slaves) because citizens cannot be deprived of “life, liberty or property without due process of law,” as established by the Fifth Amendment.
After the Civil War, white Southerners institute “black codes” that place significant constraints on the lives of newly freed slaves. Although the codes vary from state to state, they typically require African Americans to work; anyone found not working could be arrested for vagrancy. But the “black codes” also make it very difficult for former slaves to become self-sufficient. For example, some states prohibit former slaves from owning land or raising crops while others prevent them from living within certain towns or cities, marrying and voting. The “black codes” are similar to Jim Crow laws passed in the 1870s and 1880s. They will remain on the books in some places until the 1960s.
The 14th Amendment says that anyone born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen and prevents states from denying “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The amendment also requires states to provide all citizens with “equal protection of the laws.”
A federal law that grants female federal employees equal pay for equal work is enacted. This right was not extended to the majority of female employees who work for private companies or state and local governments until the Equal Pay Act is adopted in 1963.
In the South, Jim Crow laws segregate African Americans and whites. Signs indicate separate drinking fountains, restrooms, and dining areas as “Colored” or “Whites Only.” Some laws prevent whites and African Americans from working in the same rooms.
This act made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race or previous servitude (that is, if a person had been a slave). Under this law, restaurants, theaters, hotels and other public places cannot refuse to serve people because of their race. The act also prohibits excluding people from juries because of race and previous servitude.
In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a West Virginia law excluding African American men from juries.
In Hodges v. United States, three men were convicted of conspiring to drive African Americans from their jobs at a lumber mill by intimidation and threats in violation of federal law. When overturning the convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court explains that neither the 14th Amendment nor 15th Amendment gives Congress or any law enforcement officials the power to regulate purely private acts of discrimination. The Court also says that the 13th Amendment has no role in this case. Although the purpose of the 13th Amendment is to abolish forced labor, it does not give the Court the power to criminalize private actions that prevent citizens of African descent from making and carrying out labor agreements. Rather, the Court holds that the conspiracy charge is a state matter and not a federal government concern.
In 1903, Oregon passed a law limiting the number of hours a woman could work in a laundry to 10 hours a day. Laundry owner Curt Muller sued, saying the law was an unconstitutional violation of employers’ “liberty to contract” with employees. In this case, Muller v. State of Oregon, the Court votes unanimously to uphold the law. Although seemingly a victory for women because it improved their working conditions, the decision proves to be a setback in the drive toward equality because men face none of the same limits and because women need special protection that their male counterparts did not need.
The U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Mosley extends its previous ruling in Ex Parte Yarbrough when it upholds a conviction under the federal Civil Rights Act. Election officials in Blaine County, Okla., had refused to count the ballots in a federal election in 11 precincts where there were minority voters. The Court said, “We regard it as equally unquestionable that the right to have one’s vote counted is as open to protection by Congress as the right to put a ballot in a box.”
Mary McLeod Bethune organizes the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women’s groups that lobbies against job discrimination, racism and sexism.
During this period of racial segregation, many Southern states adopt the policy of collecting a poll tax from voters on Election Day. This tactic successfully denied the right to vote to many African American voters who could not afford the tax. In yet another case that disenfranchised African American voters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Breedlove v Suttles that Georgia’s use of a poll tax did not violate the 14th or 15th Amendment. Poll taxes are regularly imposed until 1966, when the Supreme Court reverses itself in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.
In United States v. Classic, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the 15th Amendment forbids states from discriminating on the basis of race in primary elections. The Court holds that “under our Constitution the great privilege of the ballot may not be denied a man by the state because of his color.” Later rulings in Smith v. Allwright (1944) and Chapman v. King (1946) will confirm that primary elections are an important part of the electoral process.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 8802, which prohibits military contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color or national origin. It is the first presidential action to prohibit discrimination by private companies that are awarded government contracts.
The Hill-Burton Act (Hospital Survey and Construction Act) pays for the construction of hospitals, especially in rural areas, to close the gap in access to medical care. It also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin in the provision of hospital services, but allows for “separate but equal” facilities. Hospitals are required to provide a “reasonable volume” of charitable care.
President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981, requiring “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.”
In Hernandez v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the exclusion of Mexican Americans from a jury, through the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges (objections to certain potential jurors serving on a jury without any specific reason), violates the 14th Amendment’s requirement that all people be treated equally.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal is constitutional and rules that segregation is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court finds that the doctrine of separate but equal has no place in public schools. It holds that schools that are racially segregated are inherently unequal. The Court said: “[t]o separate [students] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
In response to a federal court order to integrate schools, Gov. Orval Faubus stations the Arkansas National Guard outside Central High School in Little Rock to prevent nine African American students from entering. The students are taken through a side door, angering protesters. Fearing an out-of-control mob, authorities remove the students. Two days later, the students enter the school under the protection of the 101st Airborne Division, ordered there by President Dwight Eisenhower.
The first civil rights law enacted since 1875, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 authorizes creation of a Civil Rights Division and a Civil Rights Commission to enforce all federal civil rights laws, to coordinate the enforcement of civil rights, and to investigate complaints of civil rights violations. In 1960, the Civil Rights Act penalizes any person who prevents another individual from registering to vote or voting.
President John F. Kennedy signs Executive Order 10925, which directs all branches of the federal government to study and make recommendations concerning fairness in their employment practices. It also orders that all government contracts forbid private employers from discriminating and to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” The order creates the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which has the authority to impose penalties for violations of the order.
In Hoyt v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Florida’s rules that automatically exempt women from jury service and does not place women on jury lists. Women could, however, volunteer and register for jury service. The Court finds that women’s exclusion was justified because a “woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life.”
President John F. Kennedy establishes the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and appoints Eleanor Roosevelt as chairwoman. Although she dies in 1962, a report is issued in 1963 documenting substantial discrimination against women in the workplace. It makes specific recommendations for improvement including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after 534 hours of congressional debate and consideration of 500 amendments. The law bans discrimination in a variety of settings, including public accommodations, education and government services. Title VII of the law prohibits private employers, labor unions, and employment agencies from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, sex, color, religion and national origin. In 1967, Johnson will expand the law to cover sex discrimination.
Title VII bars employment discrimination by private employers, employment agencies and unions based on race, sex and other grounds. To investigate complaints and enforce penalties, it establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which receives 50,000 complaints of sex discrimination in its first five years.
In a graduation speech at historically black Howard University, President Lyndon B. Johnson says that laws prohibiting discrimination are not enough and that more pro-active measures are necessary:
“You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying: ‘Now, you are free to go where you want, do as you desire, and choose the leaders you please.’ You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair … . This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity, not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result.”
President Lyndon Johnson signs Executive Order 11246, requiring private employers with federal government contracts to “take affirmative action” to ensure racial equality in all aspects of hiring and employment. The order will be amended two years later to cover gender equality as well.
President Lyndon Johnson issues Executive Order 11375, which expands affirmative action policies of 1965 to cover discrimination based on sex. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women, as well as minorities, have the same employment and educational opportunities as men.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that help-wanted ads specifying gender are no longer permissible. The ruling is immediately challenged in court. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the EEOC’s ruling, which opens the path for women to apply for higher-paying jobs previously open only to men.
In Jones v. Mayer, the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its 1906 decision in Hodges v. U.S and upholds as constitutional the 1866 Civil Rights Act that gave all people, regardless of race, the right to buy and sell property. The Court holds that Congress has the power under the 13th Amendment “to determine what are the badges … of slavery” and to prohibit private businesses and government from discriminating against African Americans and other people of color.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in Bowe v. Colgate Palmolive Co. that an employer cannot divide jobs into categories reserved for one sex or the other. In this case, the employer would not allow women who had seniority – more years with the company than their male co-workers – to apply for promotions or even take a weight-lifting test that would qualify them for the better-paid position. The Court rules that any tests or considerations for hiring and promotions must be offered on a sex-neutral basis. Any seniority policy, which favors long-term employees, must cover both men and women equally.
The U.S. Supreme Court decides in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that busing is allowed to desegregate public schools and remedy past discrimination.
In Reed v. Reed, the U.S. Supreme Court, for the first time, says a state law that treats men and women differently violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Idaho law gave automatic preference to men to become an administrator of a will. The plaintiffs had argued that the long history of discrimination against women required the Court to view sex discrimination the same way it treats race discrimination. The state should be required to justify any differing treatment with the most compelling reasons.
Although the Court finds that women are entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, it refuses to extend a higher level of legal protection as it has in race discrimination cases. Nevertheless, the Court finds that the Idaho statute is unreasonable and thus unconstitutional. For the next five years, the Court will struggle with how to decide the constitutionality of laws that treated women differently.
Congress passes Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that schools receiving federal funds provide equal access to educational programs for both men and women. Among other things, passage of Title IX is credited with the explosive growth of women and girls in athletics at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. The law will take effect in 1976 after withstanding repeated court challenges.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issues guidelines that define sexual harassment as illegal sex-based discrimination under Title VII. The guidelines define harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in three circumstances: when submission is made either explicitly or implicitly a condition of an individual’s employment; it is used as the basis for a hiring decision; or it has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. Under the guidelines, employers who adopt anti-harassment policies and training are protected against some liability.
The male-only draft used during the Vietnam War ends and all branches of the military are integrated by gender when they become all-volunteer forces. In 1976, U.S. military academies will be required to admit women. Over the years, military policy that prevented women from combat assignments will ease. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, women will become more fully involved on the battlefield.
Congress passes Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by employers and organizations that receive federal financial assistance, including hospitals, nursing homes and most schools. The act requires that schools receiving federal aid must not exclude or deny individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services and must remove physical barriers and make themselves accessible to students with disabilities. The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights enforces the law.
Relying on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits race and ethnicity-based discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lau v. Nichols requires schools to take “affirmative steps” to overcome language barriers impeding children’s access to the curriculum.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed by Congress prohibits discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance.
Congress passes legislation that require the U.S. military academies to begin to admit women by 1976. The academies include West Point, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
In Craig v. Boren, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down an Oklahoma law that allowed women, ages 18-20, to drink beer but denied young men the same right. The Court finds that discrimination based on sex is entitled to an “intermediate level of scrutiny” by the Court. This means that states are not free to discriminate based on sex. Rather, the Court holds, to withstand constitutional challenge, divisions based on sex must “serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.” Women were still not given the same level of protection from discrimination as those affected by race discrimination, but the decision did provide meaningful protection.
In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is unconstitutional for the University of California, a public university, to impose a quota for minority applicants, meaning that a certain number of admission slots were reserved for minorities. At the same time, the Court says it is constitutional for the university to consider race or ethnicity as one of many factors in deciding whom to admit.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Geduldig v. Aiello, which found that the exclusion of pregnant women from a company’s disability insurance plan was not illegal sex discrimination under the 14th Amendment. The Court holds that the distinction was only between pregnant persons and non-pregnant persons, and not based on sex. The law, which amended Title VII, ensured that employment discrimination on account of pregnancy is treated as unlawful sex-based discrimination. As a result, employers could not question potential hires about their plans to have children and had to extend benefits equally. For example, if the employer allowed workers sick time or disability for other medical conditions, they had to do so for pregnancy as well and women could not be forced to take a pregnancy leave if she is willing and able to work.
In Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Equal Access Act is constitutional. The 1984 federal law bars a school from discriminating against any student group because its religious, philosophical or political viewpoint.
The Department of Transportation issues the first of two warnings to major airlines to avoid discriminating against passengers on the basis of their race, color, or national or ethnic origin. Still, within the first three months of 2002, the department will receive at least 84 discrimination complaints against airlines.
The federal law expands workers’ right to sue for pay discrimination and relaxes the statute of limitations on such suits. Lilly Ledbetter had sued her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., when she neared retirement and learned that she was paid much less than her male colleagues. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out her case, saying she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her peers. Courts repeatedly had cited the decision as a reason for rejecting lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability. The new law changes the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which said discrimination complaints must be brought within 180 days of the discriminatory act.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that the city of New Haven, Conn., discriminated against white firefighters when it threw out the results of a promotion exam because a disproportionate number of white firefighters did well compared with black firefighters. The majority opinion says in Ricci v. DeStefano that fear of legal action by the minority firefighters was not a reason to discard the results. The ruling will make it more difficult for employers to throw out the results of hiring and promotion tests once they have been given, even if they have a disproportionately negative effect on minorities.
In United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court rejects a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between “one man and one woman as husband and wife.” Section 3 said that the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriage for purposes such as insurance benefits, taxes, immigration rules, and Social Security survivor’s benefits. The ruling gives spouses in same-sex marriages legal standing but does not legalize same-sex marriage. However, the legal precedent will be used by judges to overturn state bans.
The number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage continues to grow. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. Lawsuits to legalize it are pending in several states. The catalyst for a string of court rulings against states’ same-sex marriage bans was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court revives an employment discrimination lawsuit that a Muslim woman filed against Abercrombie & Fitch when it refused to hire her because she wore a head scarf. Justice Antonin Scalia says that the company didn’t hire her because it wanted to avoid accommodating her religious practice. The company says the head scarf clashed with its “classic East Coast collegiate style” dress code for employees. The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores.
The U.S. Supreme Court upholds a long-standing precedent in housing cases that claims of racial discrimination shouldn’t be limited by the question of intent. Policies and practices that have the effect of disproportionately harming minorities are illegal, even if the victims can’t provide that intentional discrimination occurred, the Court says. In the 5-4 ruling, the justices reaffirm the principle, which has guided federal enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as essential to making the country an integrated society. The case is Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project.
In a historic 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decides in Obergefell v. Hodges that states cannot prevent same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, says that the right to marry is fundamental and that under the 14th Amendment, “couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.”
The U.S. Supreme Court declines to review a lower court ruling in Doe v. Boyertown School District that upheld a Pennsylvania school district policy that allows some transgender students to use bathrooms that match their gender identity. The plaintiffs are students who say the policy violates their privacy rights and constitutes sexual harassment in violation of Title IX, a federal law that bar discrimination based on sex in educational institutions that receive federal funds.
In a 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court throws out the conviction of Curtis Flowers, an African-American inmate who was prosecuted six times for a quadruple murder by the same prosecutor. Flowers has been on death row in Mississippi for 22 years. The prosecutor struck a total of 41 of 42 black prospective jurors. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion in Flowers v. Mississippi, said: “The state’s relentless, determined effort to rid the jury of black individuals strongly suggests that the state wanted to try Flowers before a jury with as few black jurors as possible, and ideally before an all-white jury. We cannot ignore that history.” The decision clears the way for the state of Mississippi to try Flowers for a seventh time.
The U.S. Supreme Court decides, in a 6-3 ruling, that the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring sex discrimination in the workplace protects LGBTQ employees from being fired because of their sexual orientation. The Court’s decision comes in several cases brought by gay and transgender employees.
The Trump administration argued that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act did not extend to claims of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear a case on the rights of transgender students. A Virginia school board had asked the Court to reinstate its policy barring a transgender boy from using the boys’ bathroom. In a 2-1 decision last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the school board had practiced sex-based discrimination and violated the 14th Amendment by barring the transgender student from using the bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. His high school offered a single-stall restroom as an alternative. As is its custom, the Court did not say why it was rejecting the appeal. The Court’s decision not to accept the case Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board does not establish a national precedent nor does it signal agreement with the lower court.