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1965 - 1971: A "Toothless Tiger" Helps Shape the Law and Educate the Public


Photo of Chairman Roosevelt
EEOC Chairman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr.
EEOC began operations officially July 2, 1965 one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its chairman and four commissioners had been confirmed by the Senate only one month before. A small staff of about 100, detailed mostly from other federal agencies, was confronted on opening day with an instant backlog of nearly 1,000 complaints, called "charges" in the parlance of the new law. Most of the charges had been forwarded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, which had worked with a coalition of civil rights groups for passage of the new law. New charges of employment discrimination filed with EEOC mounted rapidly. Although it had been estimated that 2,000 charges of discrimination would be filed in the first year, 8,852 charges were filed.

While the Commission attempted to process and respond to these charges, it also was struggling to hire more staff and develop basic procedures to process the charges. Moreover, in these early years, EEOC was forced to confront the many substantive and procedural issues raised by the new law. A young EEOC attorney remembers the first year as "hectic, exhilarating and exhausting. Before we could even think of trying to conciliate charges of discrimination, we had to devise a filing system, determine which complaints appeared to be valid charges . . ., what further information was needed for a determination . . ., which charges should be investigated, by whom and in what manner."

Because of its lack of enforcement powers, most civil rights groups viewed the Commission as a "toothless tiger." Nevertheless, EEOC made significant contributions to equal employment opportunity between 1965 and 1971 by using the powers it had to help define discrimination in the workplace. Indeed, in these early years, EEOC developed the basic procedural and substantive parameters of equal employment opportunity (EEO) law within a broad Congressional framework. By documenting the nature and extent of employers' discriminatory practices, EEOC helped to identify some of the most egregious employment practices. Through conciliations and by assisting private litigants in federal court through its robust amicus curiae program (in which EEOC filed "friend of the court" briefs interpreting the law), EEOC obtained redress for thousands of individual workers who had been victims of discrimination.

Next: Shaping Employment Discrimination Law

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