“The Largest Civil Rights Organization Today”:Title VII and the Transformation of the Public Sector

Source: Thomas J. Sugrue, Labor Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Vol. 11 no 3, Fall 2014
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In a 1966 interview, Gloster Current, a longtime official at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told historian August Meier that he considered the “federal government the largest civil rights organization today.” Current captured the most important economic impact of the long black freedom struggle: government had become the single most important agent of African American economic advance in the last third of the twentieth century. “Public employment,” write historians Michael Katz and Mark Stern in their systematic survey of twentieth-century census data, “became African Americans’ distinctive occupational niche.” In 2000, a remarkable 43 percent of black women and 19 percent of black men worked in government and state-related jobs. Those jobs served as a buffer against deindustrialization and an alternative to rapidly proliferating, poorly paid service-sector and retail jobs. “In 2000,” Katz and Stern show, “the median income for blacks who worked full time in the public sector exceeded the income of black private sector employees by 15 percent for men and 19 percent for women.” They conclude: “Public and state-related employment have thus proved the most powerful vehicles for African American economic mobility and the most effective anti-poverty legacy of the Great Society.” That government employment would be the major vehicle for black advancement was by no means inevitable, even when Current made his optimistic statement in early 1966…..