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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Title VII: The Freedom to Work

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Help Wanted ads in the Washington Times, 1915 [Detail]
Help Wanted ads in the Washington Times, 1915 [Detail]
What if “we the people” didn’t include you? Imagine that you weren’t permitted to apply for the job you want: a position for which you have aptitude, specialized training, or a degree. What if this job was legally off limits to you, and if you tried to protest, you could be scorned, arrested, or worse?

Prior to 1964, these barriers to employment were a reality for millions of citizens across the United States, devastating entire communities of people who could not find decent work at decent wages.

This blog post is the fourth in a series that takes a close look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964, using historical documents from the Library of Congress to explore aspects of life that the act was designed to improve. This post focuses on Title VII, which made it unlawful for employers and employment agencies to fail or refuse to hire or refer–or otherwise to discriminate against–any individual on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Title VII also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Here are a few primary sources from the decades leading up to 1964, along with teaching ideas and suggested prompts that can help students understand the significance of Title VII. Ask students to:

  • Read the Help Wanted ads from a hundred years ago. Compare and contrast with Help Wanted ads in a recent newspaper. What was in the earlier ads that Title VII prohibits? (Teachers can help younger students connect personally by asking them how they would feel if only girls were asked to do special classroom jobs; then, if only boys were asked.)
  • Read the second paragraph of E.W. Evans Brick Layer and Plasterer and the article The Colored Working Girl, which report on experiences about 25 years apart.  What situations are described, and how would the enforcement of Title VII affect them? Identify evidence of change in those two and a half decades.

    Americans All. A U.S. government poster from 1942.
    Americans All. A U.S. government poster from 1942.
  • Explore the Americans All poster. What is its purpose? Why was such a poster needed? What details help you see what was important to its creator or creators?
  • Take the discussion a step further by asking if any group of people is missing from the Americans All poster. If so, why aren’t they represented? Did Title VII affect this group?  (Teachers can help younger students by asking them to look around the room to see if each classmate is represented.) If students were asked to create such a poster today, who might they include?
  • Investigate historical documents behind the struggle against discrimination in defense and the armed forces: the idea for mass protest that led to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 in 1941 and Truman’s Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 in 1948. What did the presidential orders say had to be done? What were the limits of Truman’s orders?
    WPA poster on jobs for girls & women [between 1936 and 1941]
    WPA poster on jobs for girls & women [between 1936 and 1941]
  • Examine the jobs for girls & women poster. What is the woman doing? Why is the title “Jobs for Girls & Women” rather than simply “Jobs”?  Determine the poster’s point of view. Speculate about the poster’s impact on women, men, and children.

To draw students deeper into analyzing the primary sources, ask them to record observations, reflections, and questions on the Library’s primary source analysis tool. You can find tips in the Blog Round-Up: Using the Primary Source Analysis Tool.

Which of these primary sources would you use in your classroom or library, and why? We’d love to hear from you.

This series of blog posts is part of the Library of Congress commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act which is anchored by the web-based Civil Rights History Project and the exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom”. The exhibition is made possible by a generous grant from Newman’s Own Foundation and with additional support from HISTORY®.

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