Landmark legislation marks 50 years of aiding the disenfranchised
By Michael Dabney and Rebecca R. Bibbs
In the mid-1960s there were no licensed Black plumbers in Indianapolis admitted to the Plumbers Union Local 73 in Central Indiana. Therefore, Black plumbers were denied work on union-contracted jobs.
In 1969, U.S. District Court Judge S. Hugh Dillin (the same judge who handed down Indianapolis Public Schools’ desegregation order a couple of years later) found the union and the United States Association of Journeyman and Apprentices had engaged in a “policy and practice of discrimination . . . against Negro applicants.” Though there was nothing in writing, the judge’s opinion said it was clear to Black plumbers, who mostly lived in Indianapolis, that the union was “whites only” and there was “intentional and illegal practices of racial discrimination.” The court ordered that such practices cease.
For much of the history of racial and religious minorities, women, and members of other protected classes in Indiana, judges did not have legal tools or mandates to arrive at the conclusion Dillin did.
That changed 50 years ago on July 2, 1964, when Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241), commonly known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Joined with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., 10 years earlier and the federal Voting Rights Act the following year, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a game-changer – publicly and privately.
Title VII of the federal law prohibited employer discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and later legislation added prohibitions against pregnancy, age and disability discrimination in hiring, promoting and firing employees. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established in July 1965 to investigate, enforce, and when necessary, file suit under Title VII.
The federal civil rights law gave rise to Indiana’s Civil Rights law and the Indiana Civil Rights Commission that helps enforce it.
“We have encouraged businesses to look at themselves . . . and see how diversity drives revenues and revenues drive the bottom line,” said ICRC Executive Director Jamal Smith.
Even with the Civil Rights Act in place, change hasn’t come easily, quickly or completely. There is still progress to be made: some of it through legislation, some through court rulings and some through changing cultural attitudes.
“We are working to put ourselves out of business,” Smith said.
SLAVERY AND MIGRATION
Relying primarily on an agricultural economy, as most slave states did, Indiana has sometimes been called the northern-most southern state, where slavery was recorded as late as 1840.
The two Great Migrations, one from 1910 to 1930 and the other from 1940 to 1970, brought an estimated 6.6 million African-Americans from the fields of the Deep South to the factories of the North, including Gary and Indianapolis. The first Great Migration coincided with the political rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
However, unlike states throughout the South, the Hoosier state generally did not codify racial discrimination under law, although de facto segregation existed throughout Indiana for the first half of the 20th Century, and for some time afterwards.
“It was practiced, but there were no ‘whites only’ and ‘colored only’ signs,” said former state Rep. William Crawford, speaking on the issue of social and economic justice in the state. “There was blatant racism on our state, but it was not codified by law.”
Early in Indiana’s history, the majority of immigrants who arrived here from overseas were German or Irish. But that changed around 1900 with the rise of the steel mills in the Northwest part of the state, where there was an increased need for workers.
Attracted by the prospect of jobs in the steel, meatpacking and automobile industries, Polish and other East European immigrants settled in East Chicago, Gary and South Bend. Though by today’s standards these immigrants from Europe’s seventh largest nation would be considered white, they often faced a great deal of discrimination. And in a nation founded in part to advance religious freedom for Protestants, Poles, most of whom were Catholic, were relatively unpopular because of their religion.
But as the needs for workers rose and Mexican laborers migrated to Northwest Indiana, the oppressed sometimes became the oppressor. Though Latinos now are the population majorities in East Chicago and Ligonier, they have faced resentment from other ethnic groups fearing a loss of their piece of the pie.
THE ACT’S IMPACT
The impact of the Civil Rights Act has been largely positive for Indiana, the ICRC’s Smith said.
For example, in 1977, the state Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Vanderburgh Circuit Court invalidating the adoption of a separate actuarial table for men and women for determining the benefits to be paid by the state teacher’s retirement fund.
Through commission citations and court rulings, employers have been held accountable for discriminatory actions of their employees against other employees, such as creating a hostile work environment due to racial or sexual harassment, even when such a violation was not the employer’s intent.
In 1984, Susan Moffett, who was white, brought suit against the Gene B. Click Co. and several managers, alleging that she was harassed at work because she had a Black boyfriend.
A broader range of workers are demanding equality in the workplace. And in some instances, Indiana’s employers are ahead of the curve. For instance, as conservative lawmakers try to prevent gay marriage even as most of the country is giving in state by state, Hoosier employers have argued a ban on same-sex marriage is bad for business.
To combat such workplace problems today, most major employers in the state have diversity officers to help them handle issues that may arise related to the varying backgrounds of their workers, Smith said.
“The world we are living in is changing. The demographics of Indiana are changing,” Smith said. “We are being forced to work with people who do not look like you, play like you, worship like you.”