The Perils of Internet Research: The Case of LBJ and Affirmative Action





5-28-12

Samuel Walker is Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he taught from 1974 to 2005. He received a PhD in American history from Ohio State University in 1973. He is the author of "Presidents and Civil Liberties from Wilson to Obama: A Story of Poor Custodians" (Cambridge, 2012).

Affirmative action in employment as official U.S. policy began with President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Executive Order 11246. Designed to implement Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the order directed federal agencies to maintain “a positive, continuing program” to promote equal employment opportunity, and federal contractors to take “affirmative action” in that regard.

E.O. 11246 had a tangled history with regard to women. LBJ deliberately omitted sex discrimination from it, even though Title VII specified “sex” along with the other protected classes. Under pressure from a resurgent women’s rights movement (the National Organization for Women was founded in 1966), he issued Executive Order 11375 in October 1967 revising 11246 to include sex discrimination.

The saga of E.O. 11246 is a fascinating chapter in the histories of both the law of sex discrimination and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. (Robert Caro, in the recently published fourth volume of his monumental biography of LBJ, Passage of Power, does not discuss this story.) Perhaps even more important for historians, it is a cautionary tale on the use of the internet for historical research.

A standard Google search for “Executive Order 11246" yields multiple web sites, including those of the U.S. Department of Labor (which enforces the federal contractor provision), the National Archives, and Wikipedia. These sites post the current revised version of E. O. 11246. While it duly notes the many revisions over the years, only historians who are specialists on the subject and some employment law attorneys (but only those interested in history), will realize that it is not the original. Consequently, they will gain no hint of the contested initial history of affirmative action regarding sex discrimination or of LBJ’s record on women’s rights.

This is not an insignificant issue. Wikipedia is widely used by average Americans as a research tool. College undergraduates use it routinely, as do many graduate students. Only PhD or some MA students who are closely supervised by their faculty are likely to know they are missing some important history. Few people, moreover, are likely to question the National Archives as an authoritative source on American history. Executive Order 11246, finally, is hardly the only document where the original does not immediately appear through a Google search. Try finding the original text of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, for example.

The contested history of E.O. 11246 is an important aspect of the history of the modern women’s rights movement and of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Apart from women’s history specialists, few Americans know that Southern segregationists sought to include sex discrimination in Title VII as a ploy to kill the entire civil rights bill. President Johnson remained silent on the issue, and the U.S. Women’s Bureau sent a letter opposing adding sex discrimination to Title VII. Even fewer know that because of these origins, many liberals, including LBJ, regarded the sex discrimination clause as “illegitimate.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created by the 1964 law, for example, initially refused to take seriously certain sex discrimination issues, such as sex-specific employment advertisements (e.g., “Men Wanted”). The rising feminist movement challenged Johnson, the EEOC, and other foot dragging on women’s rights, and forced the president to issue E.O. 11375 in 1967, adding sex discrimination to E.O. 11246. Johnson’s resistance to banning sex discrimination in employment stands in sharp contrast to his passionate commitment to ending race discrimination, and is only one of many contradictions in the record of this extremely complex politician. He was able to transcend his cultural background on race, but not on gender.

Historians should be deeply concerned about the incomplete and misleading view of history that ordinary people receive using conventional internet search procedures. What needs to be done? Individual historians can, of course, bombard Wikipedia with additions and clarifications. The National Archives is another matter. Minimally, the organized voice of the profession should bring this matter up with the institution and recommend, at a minimum that it post clearly labeled “original” and “current” versions of important documents.


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