'A Stone of Hope': The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Its Impact on the Economic Status of Black Americans

Author:Jenny Bourne
Louisiana Law Review
“A Stone of Hope”: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and
Its Impact on the Economic Status of Black
Jenny Bourne
Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA) carved
American law anew.2 In particular, Title VII forbade employers,
employment agencies, and labor organizations larger than a certain
size from discriminating against individuals due to their race, color,
religion, sex, or national origin.3 Some have viewed Title VII as
mostly symbolic because the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission (EEOC) established by the CRA initially had very
limited power and resources. Others have considered it merely a
continuation of change already in progress or a minor factor in
improving the economic status of black Americans. In this Article, I
examine the impact of Title VII on labor-market outcomes with
high-precision data samples drawn from the U.S. federal censuses
for 1940 through 2000 and the 2010 American Community Survey.4
I find that real wages among employed, black, male household
heads aged 20 to 60 years old increased sharply during the 1960s
Copyright 2014, by JENNY BOURNE.
1. T he title comes from a sermon delivered by Reverend Martin Luther
King, Jr., at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Remaining Awake Thr ough a Great Revolution ( Mar. 31, 1968), available at
maining_awake_through_a_great_r evolution [http://perma.cc/A4A4-5CMW]
(archived Apr. 6, 2014) (“[W]e will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair
the stone of hope.”).
Professor and Chair of Economics Department, Carleton College,
Northfield, Minnesota. Professor Bourne gratefully acknowledges the superb
editorial assistance given by Katherine Dampf and other members of the
Louisiana Law Review.
2. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub. L. No. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241.
3. Title VII applied only to entities with 100 or more employees or members
in the first year of enactment. Title VII, § 701(b) (1964). The relevant numbers
were 75 for the second year, 50 for the third year, and 25 thereafter. Title VII,
§ 701(e) (1964). Executive Order 11246 established the Office of Federal Contract
Compliance prohibiting racial discrimination among federal contractors with at
least 50 employees. Exec. Order No. 11246, 30 Fed. Reg. 12319 (Sept. 24, 1965).
4. Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken,
Matthew Schroeder & Ma tthew Sobek, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series:
Version 5.0, IPUMS USA, https://usa.ipums.org/usa (last visited Mar. 10, 2014). I
used the 1% IPUMS samples for 1940–1970 and 2010 and the 5% samples for
1980–2000, appropriately weighted.
across all ages and educational levels.5 The largest spike in gains
went to black men living in states covered by the Voting Rights Act
of 1965 (VRA),6 particularly high school dropouts. On average, real
wages increased both in absolute terms and relative to the wages of
white men living in the same region. The growth rate in real wages
for black men living in VRA states exceeded that for black men
living elsewhere and for all white men from the 1960s onward, with
the largest difference occurring in the decade of the ‘60s. Notably,
employed black men living in VRA states earned less than half as
much as employed black men of comparable age and educational
background living in non-VRA states in the years 1940 to 1960, but
the discount shrank significantly—to 30%—in 1970. Some of this
was due to occupational shifts that would not have been possible
before the CRA.
These results comport with those found by Nobel laureate James
Heckman, who is a leading supporter of the view that Title VII
indeed mattered for the economic status of blacks, despite little
funding to support its lofty goals. Part of the credit may be due to
5. The sample used throughout the Article consists of male household heads
aged 20 to 60 years old. Focusing on this group isolates the experience of the
primary bread-winner in families that were headed by men. In a tiny number of
cases, these individuals were recorded as spouses of household heads. Because
market outcomes may differ across gender due to differences in non-market
activities, like housework and child care, see, e.g., Joni Hersch & Leslie S.
Stratton, Housework and Wages, 37 J. OF HUM. RES. 217 (2002), I chose to focus
on men only. In other work, I find that black women in 2000 participated more in
the labor force than white women and their wages were close to parity after
controlling for a ge, education, demographic, a nd household tr aits. Jenny Bour ne
Wahl, Residential Segregation and Labor-Market Outcomes: The Importance of
Race, Gender, and Marital Status (Carleton College Department of Economics,
Working Paper No. 2008-01, 2008), available at apps.carleton.edu/curricular
/econ/assets/2008_01.pdf . Earlier work on female labor-market outcomes by race
includes: Francine D. Blau & Andrea H. Beller, Black-White Earnings Over the
1970s and 1980s: Gender Differences in Trends, 74 REV. ECON. & STATS. 276
(1992) (finding that black women enjoyed even greater increases in annual
earnings in the 1970s and 1980s than black men, as compared to their white
counterparts) and James S. Cunningham & Nadja Zalokar, The Economic
Progress of Black Women, 1940–1980: Occupational Distribution and Relative
Wages, 45 INDUS. & LAB. REL. REV. 540 (1992).
6. Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437. The VRA
was designed to remove remaining barriers to suffrage in states or districts where
fewer than 50% of blacks were registered to vote. Id. States covered by the
original legislation were Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South
Carolina, and Virginia. Id. In addition, the 1965 Act covered several counties in
North Carolina. Id. The Act was amended to include more jurisdictions in 1970
and 1975, including the states of Alaska, Arizona, and Texas as well as various
municipalities and counties. Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, Pub. L. 91-
285; Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975, Pub. L. 94-73.

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