August 20, 1964 – President Johnson Signs the Equal Opportunity Act Into Law

On this day in history, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Economic Opportunity Act, U.S. Public Law 88-452 (78 STAT 508). The bill approved $1 billion for social programs to combat poverty.

In his Annual Message to Congress in January of that year, the President had declared a War on Poverty, stating:

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope–some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

President Johnson gave Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of recently assassinated President Kennedy, the task of developing a bill to wage the war against poverty in the United States.

In the Senate, the bill was debated for two days and then passed on July 23, 1964, with 61 Senators in favor, 34 opposed. In the House, the Senate-passed bill was debated for four days and passed by a vote of 226 to 185, on August 8, 1964. The debate and voting in both the House and Senate was highly partisan with Republicans questioning states’ rights and southern Democrats the racial integration provisions. The Senate adopted the House-passed bill that same day and twelve days later the bill was signed by President Johnson.

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The Act established eleven major programs, including The Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The legislation also authorized the Economic Opportunity Council, which led to the launch of smaller independent groups that worked with communities to establish better economic climates.

Upon signing the bill, President Johnson said:

In helping others, all of us will really be helping ourselves. For this bill will permit us to give our young people an opportunity to work here at home in constructive ways as volunteers, going to war against poverty instead of going to war against foreign enemies.”

Subsequent legislation expanded the role of the EEOC. Today, according to the EEOC website:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. It is also illegal to discriminate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”

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