U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Griggs v. Duke Power Company, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could not require qualifications for jobs that were discriminatory in effect unless those qualifications were proved necessary for the job.

Summary of Event

Legal challenges to the constitutionality of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought the case of Griggs et al. v. Duke Power Company before the U.S. Supreme Court for argument in December, 1970. The Court’s decision, read by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, was rendered on March 8, 1971. Supreme Court, U.S.;employment discrimination Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring (Mar. 8, 1971) [kw]Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring, U.S. (Mar. 8, 1971) [kw]Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring, U.S. Supreme (Mar. 8, 1971) [kw]Bans Discrimination in Hiring, U.S. Supreme Court (Mar. 8, 1971) [kw]Discrimination in Hiring, U.S. Supreme Court Bans (Mar. 8, 1971) [kw]Hiring, U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in (Mar. 8, 1971) Supreme Court, U.S.;employment discrimination Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] [g]North America;Mar. 8, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring[00220] [g]United States;Mar. 8, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring[00220] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 8, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring[00220] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 8, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring[00220] [c]Business and labor;Mar. 8, 1971: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Discrimination in Hiring[00220] Griggs, Willie S. Burger, Warren E. Humphrey, Hubert H. Tower, John Talmadge, Herman E. Randolph, A. Philip Johnson, Lyndon B. King, Martin Luther, Jr. Jackson, Jesse

Beginning in 1866, Congress enacted a series of civil rights laws that ostensibly safeguarded citizens’ nonpolitical rights, notably those personal liberties guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Thirteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law amid the turbulence of the 1960’s associated with the Civil Rights movement, campaigns for women’s rights, battles for alternative lifestyles, environmentalism, and bitter debate over the Vietnam War. The act represented the most sweeping legislation of its kind up to that time.

President John F. Kennedy, Kennedy, John F. contrary to his political instincts, launched the civil rights bill in June, 1963, five months before his assassination. Anxious to build the Great Society, Great Society President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, was deeply committed both personally and politically to the principles embodied in the bill. So, too, were liberal members of the Congress, some of whom, including Hubert H. Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Mansfield, Mike and Estes Kefauver, Kefauver, Estes were veteran civil libertarians, whereas others, including Sam Ervin, Ervin, Sam had become dedicated converts.

The real initiatives for fresh civil rights legislation lay outside the White House and Congress, most notably among black leaders. By 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his young associates such as Jesse Jackson had begun their dramatic peaceful assaults on segregation in various cities of the American South. Almost simultaneously, they had launched Operation Breadbasket, Operation Breadbasket a grassroots effort to bring an end to discriminatory practices that kept substantial numbers of African Americans out of the workforce and gravely handicapped their economic opportunities. It was this type of discrimination in particular that was dealt with in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Although hiring discrimination affected many groups, the plight of African Americans, the nation’s largest minority, was singularly bad in the early 1960’s, and in some regards it was worsening. Long a leader against discrimination in trade unions and a proponent of equal employment opportunities, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, outlined the effects of hiring and job discrimination to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1962. Randolph pointed to the relatively small number of skilled black workers in the nation, to segregation and racial barriers in trade unions and in apprenticeship programs, to a disproportionate concentration of black workers in unskilled occupations, and to new technologies that were diminishing industry’s need for unskilled labor. He noted that the percentages of black carpenters, painters, bricklayers, and plasterers, for example, had declined precipitously since 1950. In addition, the unemployment rate for black workers was nearly three times the rate for whites.

Such was the background against which Willie S. Griggs and thirteen fellow black coworkers at the Duke Power Company’s Dan River Steam Station in Draper, North Carolina, brought a class-action suit against their employer. All the black workers at the Dan River Plant worked in the Labor Department, in which the highest-paying jobs paid less than the lowest-paying jobs that whites held in the plant’s four other departments. Promotions within departments were normally made on the basis of seniority, and transferees into a department usually began in the lowest positions.

In 1955, the Duke Power Company began requiring a high school diploma for assignment to any department except Labor. When the company eliminated its previous policies of segregation and stopped restricting black workers to the Labor Department, a high school diploma remained a prerequisite for transfer to other departments. In 1965, the company announced that for new employees, placement in any department except Labor was dependent on the achievement of adequate scores on two professionally designed high school equivalency tests. It was in this regard that the Griggs case invoked Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The workers argued that black workers were less likely than whites to pass the tests but that performance on the tests was unrelated to ability to perform jobs.

The longest debate in American legislative history had preceded passage of the Civil Rights Act. Congress had laboriously made clear its intent in regard to Title VII: It was to achieve equality of employment opportunities and to remove previous barriers that had favored identifiable groups of white workers. No part of the act barred employers from utilizing “neutral” tests, practices, or procedures in selecting or promoting employees.

Delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court in the case, Chief Justice Burger reiterated these congressional objectives. Speaking for a unanimous Court, Burger declared that even when an employer’s tests, procedures, or practices were “neutral” in their intent, they could not be maintained if their effect was to freeze the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices. What the Civil Rights Act and Title VII proscribed were any “artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to employment” when such barriers served to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or any other impermissible classification. Burger acknowledged that the test requirements instituted by the Duke Power Company were intended to improve the overall quality of its workforce. The chief justice noted, however, that employment practices that could not be shown to be related to job performance and that disproportionately excluded black workers from employment opportunities were clearly prohibited. An employer’s good intent or absence of discriminatory intent, Burger continued, did not redeem employment procedures or testing mechanisms that operated as “built-in headwinds” for minority groups and were unrelated to measurements of job performance. Burger emphasized that the purpose of Title VII was to protect the employer’s right to insist that any job applicant, black or white, must meet the applicable job qualifications. Title VII in fact was designed to facilitate hiring on the basis of job qualifications rather than on the basis of race or color.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however strongly President Johnson and liberal members of Congress felt about its objectives, did not miraculously abolish ingrained discriminatory hiring and employment practices. Despite the vast powers that Johnson derived from being the head of the country’s largest employer, the federal government itself, and from having some control over billions of dollars in federal contracts, his power was circumscribed. The federal bureaucracy, many observers noted, was lethargic, and the country’s great corporations and unions could not lightly be antagonized, particularly because the president required their support to attain other goals of his Great Society. After appointing Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, one of the country’s leading civil libertarians, to lead the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity in February, 1965, Johnson abruptly removed him the following September. Taking this as a signal of presidential will, the agencies charged with implementing fair employment policies tended to drift.

There were gains, most notably in the changed public attitudes about race. Whereas in 1944 only 45 percent of whites polled believed that African Americans should have as good a chance as whites to secure jobs, in 1963, 80 percent espoused that belief. The U.S. Civil Service Commission increased the percentage of black workers in government jobs, principally in the Post Office. The Civil Rights Commission, however, found that the enforcement of nondiscrimination provisos in government contracts was almost nonexistent, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that had been created to oversee applications of Title VII struggled without enforcement powers. Operation Breadbasket, initiated by Martin Luther King, Jr., and conducted largely by his aide, Jesse Jackson, had boycotted businesses until they opened jobs to black workers, but its efforts and success gradually diminished. Black unemployment ran four to five times as high as unemployment among whites. The problem was especially severe in inner cities.

By the early 1970’s, there were signs of improvement. Enforced or not, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encouraged employers to hire more black workers. This cause was aided by labor shortages of the 1960’s as well as improvements in the education of black labor force entrants. Moreover, by 1972, Congress had granted the EEOC power to initiate legal action against businesses showing evidence of employment discrimination, and major offenders were soon forced to comply with Title VII’s mandates. For these reasons, among others, black men nearly tripled their employment in white-collar jobs. Black women also gained in employment generally, with strong gains in white-collar jobs. Accordingly, the gap in income between white and black Americans narrowed significantly. The median income of black employees, for example, had been 59 percent of that of whites in 1959. By 1969, the proportion had risen to 69 percent. Employed black women, during the same period, raised their median income to 93 percent of that of white female employees, although women generally were paid less than were men.

By March, 1971, when Chief Justice Burger delivered the Court’s decision in the Griggs case, some observers believed that despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the gap in opportunities between blacks and other Americans was widening. Increases in the numbers of black high school dropouts, black welfare recipients, and black women giving birth out of wedlock, as well as in venereal disease, drug abuse, and crime among African Americans, seemed to substantiate such assertions. According to some observers, the African American population had taken on the configurations of a distinct underclass.

As indicated above, however, there was heartening evidence that black workers were closing economic gaps between themselves and mainstream white society. Challenges to hiring and promotional barriers through Title VII and an empowered EEOC were important contributing factors to the hastening of this process. The liberal position taken by the Burger Supreme Court in giving specific weight to Title VII’s objectives in the Griggs case also undoubtedly strengthened federal and state attacks on employment discrimination. To many black leaders, such decisions proved the worth of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As Roy Wilkins noted in a speech at the fifty-fifth annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the principal value of the act was the recognition by Congress that African Americans are constitutional citizens, recognition necessary to begin the pursuit of happiness through political, social, and economic progress. Wilkins might have gone further. As legal scholars observed, the Griggs decision went beyond the Constitution. The Constitution prohibited only intentional discrimination, and the illegality of such discrimination had for decades been beyond legal question. After the Griggs opinion, legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII was interpreted to prohibit de facto discriminatory effects of employment practices as well. Supreme Court, U.S.;employment discrimination Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964[Title 07 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Auerbach, Jerold S., ed. American Labor: The Twentieth Century. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969. Commentary and documents clearly presented by a labor historian and other specialists. Part 4 is particularly relevant, dealing with civil and economic rights, race, segregation, employer and union job discrimination, and the impacts of automation. Part 3 also deals with major labor legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berger, Morroe. Equality by Statute: The Revolution in Civil Rights. New York: Octagon Books, 1978. A clearly written, intelligent survey of subject. Chapter 4 examines efforts to reduce employment discrimination in New York State as a mirror of national problems. Chapter 1 details creation of the EEOC and increments to its powers. Chapter 5 is an acute analysis of the effects of law in controlling prejudice and discrimination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blasi, Vincent, ed. The Burger Court: The Counter-Revolution That Wasn’t. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. The main thesis linking these expert analyses of the Burger Court is that it continued its work much in the same liberal spirit in regard to civil rights as its predecessor, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The Griggs case is treated in chapters 6 and 7, in context with analogous cases. Contains photos and biographies of Burger Court justices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grofman, Bernard, ed. Legacies of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Nineteen scholars, lawyers, and statisticians address the history and evolution of the landmark legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Collection of essays provides information on more than four hundred significant Court decisions, with supporting glossary and other aids.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Outstanding survey is richly detailed and critical but well balanced. Places the Griggs case in context with a gamut of racial and employment problems. A fine historical survey, clearly written and engaging.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Robert H., ed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2004. Overview of the act, its history, the debate surrounding the legislation, and its evolution. Includes essays written around that time as well as more recent essays. Recommended for grades 9-12.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schwartz, Bernard, comp. Civil Rights. 2 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1970. Consists of federal legislation, extracts from congressional debates, and Supreme Court decisions, with commentary by the compiler. An outstanding work for the background and context of Title VII.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whalen, Charles, and Barbara Whalen. The Longest Debate: A Legislative History of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1985. Written by an outstanding congressman and civil libertarian with his columnist wife. This is an informative, engaging commentary and excerpting of testimony on an extraordinarily complex and politically difficult bill. Ample discussion of the EEOC and Title VII.

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