When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the part that was most on people's minds was Title II, which prohibited segregation in places of public accommodation -- lunch counters, theaters, motels.
A few years later, the leading edge had become Title VI which has the basis for federal fund cutoffs in segregated school districts in the South.
Today, still a third section of that same momentous act has become the central one -- Title VII, which forbids discrimination in employment.
Access to jobs -- and to income --has become the leading civil rights issue of the 1970s. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now receives more than 85,000 job discrimination complains a year -- more than one every two minutes its offices are open for business.
The courts and executive branch have become deeply involved in defining and enforcing equal employment opportunity. Last month, the Supreme Court, in the Weber case, was called upon to decide when affirmative action plans are legal in employment. It declined to restrict their use. In a separate development just after the court ruling Uniroyal, the nation's third-largest rubber company, was debarred -- declared no longer eligible for government business -- for allegedly violating equal employment opportunity regulations.
Uniroyal, which has since won and lost a temporary restraining order against this debarment pending appeal, would be the largest company ever debarred for such a reason. But other well-known companies also have been quietly taken in recent years into the proceedings that can lead to debarment. They include Hughes Aircraft, St. Regis Paper, Honeywell, Owens-Illinois and the nation's 24th largest bank, Harris Trust & Savings Bank of Chicago.
And other large employers have felt federal pressure in other ways.
Earlier this year one such company, Sear Roebuck, reversed the normal order and filed a richly publicized suit against federal enforcement agencies.
Sears, which has been under investigation by the EEOC for allegedly discriminating in employment against women, blacks and Hispanics, made two basic points in its suit (which has since been dismissed):
That the government has helped make white males predominant in the work force in a variety of ways -- by giving special help to predominantly white male veterans, for example, and discriminating against working wen in Social Security and welfare rules.
That existing federal law is also contradictory in that Congress has now accorded special status to many groups -- blacks, Hispanics, women, veterans, the elderly -- who are all competing for the same jobs.
Sears' view of federal equal employment opportunity requirements as burdensome is widely held in the business community. The view just as widely held among civil rights groups is that the equal employment opportunity programs have been eneffectual.
The Carter administration, in moving to rreorganize the programs last year, acknowledged that both sides might be partly right.
In fact, as experts on all sides agree, most disadvantaged groups have made progress in employment in the last 15 years. But the progress has been slow, and they remain behind whites males.
Example: The EEOC keeps statistics on numbers of blacks in various kinds of jobs, including managerial and professional. The percentage of blacks in managerial jobs has more than doubled since the late 1960s, the percentage in professional jobs has aso risen. Yet blacks remain badly under-represented in both categories. They make up about 3 percent of all managers, 3 percent of professionals, but 11 percent of the population.
Civil rights groups also question whether even what regard as the slow progress of the past will continue if -- as many economists warn -- the country is heading for a period of slow economic growth and low rates of job formation.
The modern federal effort to assure equal employment opportunity began in 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order on the subject. Succeeding presidents issued further such orders, but these early orders were mostly symbolic.
Congress then acted in 1964, but only after the Senate stripped from the civil rights bill the power the House had given the EEOC to take a balking emp;loyer to court.
The next year Lysson Johnson issued his executive order requiring affirmative action plans of federal contractors essentially the same order under which Uniroyal was debarred.
But the executive order was not much enforced in the 1960s, either. Most of the action in equal employment opportunity took place in the courts, particularly the Supreme Court.
That court is now widely regarded as conservative. But in the fair employment field even many civil rights advocates who find fault with it on other grounds acknowledge the court has handed down strong case law.
The first and in many ways still the most important of these decisions was written in 1969 by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. In that case, Griggs V. Duke Power, the court held unanimously that an employment practice did not need to be discriminatory in intent to be unlawful; it was enough for it to be discriminatory in effect.
In subsequent cases the court legitimized the use of statistics in measuring employment discrimination and approved the use of back pay in compensating discrimination victims.
In 1972 Congress reconsidered the Eeco's enforcement powers and authorized the agency to take employers to court. But it balked at letting the EEOC issue orders, as many other regulatory agencies can.
Most experts agree the added power did little to revive the agency. As the Carter administration noted during reorganization proceedings last year, the agency often took years to dispose of cases. There was little coordination between its investigators and its lawyers. Thus, the investigators would recommend cases for court action and well over half the time the lawyers would reject the recommendation as unsupportable.
The agency, while it did begin investigations of several national employers in the early 1970s including Sears, also lacked a strong "systemic" program. It, therefore, tended to act for one complaining employe at a time instead of in behalf of groups, which most experts say is the only way to make a dent in discrimination.
The Carter administration, in the person of Eleanor Holmes Norton, whom President Carter appointed as "chair" of the agency, has promised to correct these deficiencies. Early reports on all sides have been glowing, but reorganizations take time to test.
The other important area of enforcement is contract compliance -- the debarment procedure. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the Labor Department, which has jurisdiction over this, is not as well known as the EEOC but in some respect may be more powerful.
It could have lost part of its enforcement power had the Supreme Court decided the Weber case some other way. The issue in Weber was whether a company can institute an affirmative action plan except as a remedy for proven past discrimination. The contract compliance office in the past has required such plans with or without such proof.
The court left it free to continue, and it has jurisdiction over more than 30 million jobs across the economy.