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Making a Right a Reality

In 1990, EEOC published "Making A Right A Reality: An Oral History of the Early Years of the EEOC, 1965 - 72". The book was published in celebration of EEOC's 25th Anniversary, and drew from 30 interviews with EEOC employees. All but one of those employees had been with EEOC at least 20 years at the time of the interview. Here are a few excerpts.

Yes, I was in Washington, D.C. I was there when Dr. Martin Luther King made the March on Washington. And I was there when he gave the speech, and we all held hands and sang We Shall Overcome.' That was a tremendous experience, one never to be forgotten.

Tom Robles

I participated in the March on Washington. It was an incredibly hot day, an incredibly huge crowd, and people were incredibly friendly and nice. There was a sense of hopefulness and a sense of purpose.

Elizabeth Thornton

The government had a holiday. I think the whole city closed. People were saying that there's going to be trouble, but there was no trouble, just a beautiful day. People converged on the city from all routes, by all modes transportation. If you were on Constitution Avenue you could not help but get into the spirit of the day. We marched from the monument to the Lincoln Memorial. We marched with the United Auto Workers, one of the labor organizations. It was just a day long to be remembered. At first, in the morning, the radio announced: People were arriving. Then, about 11:00 they were coming in droves from everywhere. And that's what happened. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Susie Foshee

I was detailed to the task force, established and located over in the Department of Commerce, where EEOC Chairman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. had been an assistant secretary. It was formed in late April, 1965, shortly after the original five commissioners were nominated by President Johnson. And there was a small task force that began some operations. The old President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity's primary responsibility, and that's where I worked at the time, was to read the law and develop training programs, and orient some 150 or so people, who were supposed to be detailed to EEOC from various federal agencies to handle the investigations in the very early stages of the commission's operations. These people came from various contract compliance agencies, the Department of Labor, the Civil Service commission and the National Labor Relations Board. The people from the NLRB were extremely well equipped to deal with EEO investigations. Obviously EEOC was modeled on the board and those individuals understood the seat-of-the-pants' concept of disparate treatment because there was no case law at the time and there was no concept of disparate treatment as such, until McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, which, by the way, was investigated by staff under my supervision and by the local fair employment practices commission. Obviously most skilled were the people from contract compliance agencies, because, under Executive Order 10925, some of them had been performing EEO investigations for the past four years. Obviously, they could hit running and didn't require much training at all...All, or course, were ignorant as the devil as to sex discrimination, because prior to July the 2nd, it had not been illegal. Once we were relatively satisfied that they were competent, we would hand them eight cases and a book of airline ticket requests,...and tell them to be back in a month with complete investigative reports. And literally, there were married people with children, with families. Their wives, primarily, and husbands in some few cases, seldom saw them. They did duty over and above the call. In December, 1965, we were permitted to hire the first six investigators. Six months into the commission's operations, we hired the first six investigators. At that time, we had 10,000 cases to investigate.

John Rayburn

I knew the first director of compliance, named George Holland, and in October of 65 he was asking me to come on over to a new agency...I was trying to get into something with more backing, like dealing with civil rights, trying to do something, some kind of civil rights activity. In those days I was, on paper, the 135th employee of the agency. Within the Office of Compliance, that was the office where we took all the charges and remember, back at this point, there were no field offices so we took all the charges in headquarters. We had six investigators who were actually on EEOC's payroll, and there were maybe about another six or seven who were on loan from other agencies.

Everett Crosson

Everybody was a little bit crazy. People came to EEOC because they wanted to do good. We had some investigators who had been on marches in Mississippi...[They] came because they cared about civil rights. They'd argue and they'd fight and they'd bitch and scream, but there was always the same direction that everyone was going in. It was an exciting place to work.

Dorothy Howze

These are people, they weren't in it for the money. {Commissioner} Sam Jackson said, We've got five years to do what you want to do. That's all. You got five years to get it done. Otherwise, they are going to re-write the law. And he was right.

Whitney Walker

Very hectic. Very hectic. Loads and loads of work. We worked all the time. I had worked overtime so much until I had gotten to the point I didn't know what my normal salary was. And that's true. I worked evenings, every Saturday, quite a few Sundays...After the opening up of the EEOC, {charges} just poured in.

Hortense Criddell

Spirits were high, you had a commitment, you wanted to work, you worked. I worked long hours. There were never enough hours in a day. I went home, not because the day was over, but because I had worked so long that it was time to go home and see the house again. But we were not concerned about eight-hour days back then.

Arline Leggett

In the early days I think they thought a few hundred people would come here and file charges of employment discrimination, and we would work on it and it would get better...Someone once told me that 4,000 charges were waiting the day they opened the door. So we were always overwhelmed by the numbers, even in the early days. What was fascinating about that time was how you could be very creative. Because you weren't strictly in law enforcement, creativity and so forth came to the fore...So you could bat around ideas at lunch and there would be an amicus brief the next morning. And you could talk to anyone; it was not a particularly hierarchical organization anybody with an idea was welcomed....it was a time of new ideas.

Ronnie Blumenthal

I think that all {of the bases of discrimination} were handled equally. And I know a great story about an investigator who was probably hired back in 65, when the law went into effect. He had investigated mainly race charges, and he didn't have a real sensitivity to some of the sex issues. One of the issues back then was the weight-lifting requirements. He had a case I think it was in West Virginia where he couldn't imagine why any [woman] wanted the job. I think it was lifting 100-pound boxes or something. The investigator must have been, probably about 6'1", and probably weighed about 200 pounds, something like that. He went to meet the charging party, and she was this little woman. And he basically said to her, I can't imagine why you'd want to do this job. And she went up to him, put her hands underneath his arms and picked him up off the floor. And that proved the point to him that people should be handled as individuals as opposed to classes.

Elizabeth Thornton

As I really realized how bad off women were by the mid-70's, I was appalled, and I was also kind of ashamed that I hadn't seen it sooner. I think a lot of us felt that way...But remember, it was a whole different world then. It was a lot more innocent. We were all a lot more naive and younger. Employers were less subtle than they are now about not hiring and promoting people. They just said, I don't want you. Girls don't do that job. Sometimes it was easier to talk to an employer. Well, why don't girls do that job? Don't you think she could? Well, give her a chance. Let her try it. And then an employer might or might not...The champion of women at that time...was Sonia Pressman. She fought the airlines. She fought for the airline stewardesses...She was an EEOC attorney...But Sunny' Pressman...was small and she was dynamic, and don't get in her way. She was one of the gentlest souls you'd ever want to meet, but she was as tough as nails. She took on the airlines and the cause of the flight attendants. Sunny' Pressman is almost single-handedly responsible for flight attendants being married, for their being over 30 and working.

Dorothy Howze

The first day I went to work at EEOC everyone in the office where I was to work in brought in their suitcases. They were on their way to North Carolina for the commission's first hearing The Textile Forum.' The staff and most of the secretaries departed before noon, and I was left in charge of myself and the office...We did on-site visits, and the textile plants were difficult visits. Those were the times that an appointment could be set for 10:00 in the morning, and the plant manager would show up at the office after 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon...Meanwhile the employees who were there in the office would talk to the manager on the phone at intervals and tell him, this nigger is still sitting up here waiting for you...yes, she's here. They would call you nigger and think nothing of it. Sometimes, when we would drive off the main highway onto the industrial road, we would notice that we were being followed by an automobile, usually there would be three of four white men in the auto. Sometimes you might see the barrel of a shotgun in an open window of the car. But they never harmed us.

Susie Foshee

We have had investigators who were arrested...[One] was gently urged out of town by a pickup truck loaded with guys and their shotguns. They rode behind him and beside him until he got out of town. There was always that inherent danger. Actually some of the white investigators suffered more than the blacks. The whites were viewed as being proverbial nigger lovers.

Everett Crosson

I think the most dramatic shift was in 1972 when we got the litigation authority. You changed the whole orientation mission of the agency which was up until then the investigation and conciliation of charges of employment discrimination. Investigation- conciliation remained, but you had an enormous club that you could walk into federal district court with. And we could do it ourselves and didn't have to rely on the private bar...It was the force of the United States of America, and I think what made us more conscious of it was the caliber of people recruited crackerjack trial lawyers and crackerjack appellate lawyers with many years of experience.

Ronnie Blumenthal

Oh, no question about it [The power to litigate] gave this agency substantially more teeth. In the first place, just the growl itself was effective from time to time, just the fact that you were able to go to court got some positive effects.

Donald Hollowell

A lot of times, I see certain things happen and I say now, Dr. Martin Luther King, I wonder was it worth it?

James Randle

One of the things that one of our commissioners, Sam Jackson, used to say is, We're here to work ourselves out of a job. That, to him, meant that when we eliminated discrimination in employment for everybody, that's when we would not have to be in existence. And that's the idea that I've always carried with me.

Everett Ware


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