5 Key Events in Affirmative Action History

Berkeley Students Protest Repeal of Affirmative Action
Students protest outside the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in favor of Affirmative Action. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Affirmative action, also know as equal opportunity, is a federal agenda designed to counteract historic discrimination faced by people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups. To foster diversity and compensate for the ways such groups have historically been excluded, institutions with affirmative action programs prioritize the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the employment, education, and government sectors, among others. Although the policy aims to right wrongs, it is among the most controversial issues of our time.

But affirmative action is not new. Its origins date back to the 1860s, when initiatives to make workplaces, educational institutions, and other arenas more inclusive were set into motion.  

1. The 14th Amendment Is Passed

More so than any other amendment of its time, the 14th Amendment paved the way for affirmative action. Approved by Congress in 1866, the amendment forbade states from creating laws that infringed upon the rights of U.S. citizens or denied citizens equal protection under the law. Following in the steps of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed enslavement, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause would prove key in shaping affirmative action policy.

2. Affirmative Action Suffers Major Setback in Supreme Court

Sixty-five years before the term “affirmative action” would come into popular use, the Supreme Court made a ruling that could have prevented the practice from ever launching. In 1896, the high court decided in landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson that the 14th Amendment did not prohibit a separate but equal society. In other words, Black people could be segregated from Whites as long as the services they received were equal to those of Whites.

The Plessy v. Ferguson case stemmed from an incident in 1892 when Louisiana authorities arrested Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth Black, for refusing to leave a Whites-only railcar. When the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal accommodations didn’t violate the constitution, it paved the way for states to establish a series of segregationist policies. Decades later, affirmative action would seek to readdress these policies, also known as Jim Crow.

3. Roosevelt and Truman Fight Employment Discrimination

For years, state-sanctioned discrimination would thrive in the United States. But two world wars marked the beginning of the end of such discrimination. In 1941—the year the Japanese attacked Pearl HarborPresident Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. The order prohibited defense companies with federal contracts from using discriminatory practices in hiring and training. It marked the first time federal law promoted equal opportunity, thus paving the way for affirmative action.

Two Black leaders—A. Philip Randolph, a union activist, and Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist, played critical roles in influencing Roosevelt to sign the groundbreaking order. President Harry Truman would play a crucial role in strengthening the legislation Roosevelt enacted.

In 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981. It prohibited the Armed Forces from using segregationist policies and mandated that the military provide equal opportunities and treatment to all without regard to race or similar factors. Five years later, Truman further strengthened Roosevelt’s efforts when his Committee on Government Contract Compliance directed the Bureau of Employment Security to act affirmatively to end discrimination.

4. Brown v. Board of Education Spells End of Jim Crow

When the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson that a separate but equal America was constitutional, it dealt a major blow to civil rights advocates. In 1954, such advocates had an entirely different experience when the high court overturned Plessy via Brown v. Board of Education.

In that decision, which involved a Kansas schoolgirl who sought entry into a White public school, the court ruled that discrimination is a key aspect of racial segregation, and it therefore violates the 14th Amendment. The decision marked the end of Jim Crow and the beginning of the country’s initiatives to promote diversity in schools, the workplace, and other sectors.

5. The Term “Affirmative Action” Enters American Lexicon

President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961. The order made the first reference to “affirmative action” and strove to end discrimination with the practice. Three years later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came about. It functions to eliminate employment discrimination as well as discrimination in public accommodations. The following year, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which mandated that federal contractors practice affirmative action to develop diversity in the workplace and end race-based discrimination, among other sorts.

The Future of Affirmative Action 

Today, affirmative action is widely practiced. But as tremendous strides are made in civil rights, the need for affirmative action is constantly called into question. Some states have even banned the practice.

In the 21st century, multiple Supreme Court cases have delved into the practice. In 2003, the Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that affirmative action in student admissions does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (as long as other factors, evaluated individually, are also part of the decision-making process), and that, in fact, there is a compelling interest and educational benefits in having a diverse student body. However, in a related case decided at the same time, Gratz v. Bollinger, a points-based system that automatically awarded extra points to underrepresented groups (such as Black, Indigenous, and Latino applicants) was ruled unconstitutional. In 2013 and 2016, a pair of Fisher v. University of Texas cases ruled that "strict scrutiny" was required for race-conscious and affirmative action admissions processes.

What’s to come of the practice? Will affirmative action exist 25 years from now? Members of the Supreme Court have said they hope the need for affirmative action is unnecessary by then. The nation remains highly racially stratified, making it doubtful that the practice will no longer be relevant.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Key Events in Affirmative Action History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-affirmative-action-2834562. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2023, April 5). 5 Key Events in Affirmative Action History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-affirmative-action-2834562 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "5 Key Events in Affirmative Action History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-affirmative-action-2834562 (accessed June 8, 2023).