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Affirmative Action

Last Updated: 2006

Affirmative action had its beginnings in March 1961, less than two months after President John F. Kennedy assumed office. It began when Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which created the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. The order mandated that every federal contract include the vow that “the Contractor will not discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, creed, color, or national origin. The Contractor will take affirmative action, to ensure that applicants are employed, and the employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” This term “affirmative action” meant taking the correct steps to curb unfair employment practices and ensure that race, creed, color, and/or national origin are ignored in the process of hiring and retaining employees.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 installed by President Lyndon B. Johnson after Kennedy’s assassination took the concept of equal opportunity employment to the national level. The Act stated in an identical manner to Executive Order 10925 a vow that “[no] person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” This act, while helpful, was greatly disputed. Within a year, Johnson believed that it was working to level the playing field of employment, since many minorities had long been hobbled by racism and racist practices.

In 1965 President Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which stated, “It is the policy of the Government of the United States to provide equal opportunity in federal employment for all qualified persons, to prohibit discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color or national origin, and to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a positive, continuing program in each department and agency.” This act was later amended to include sex, and all together it further established affirmative actions policies.

Richard Nixon issued a Revised Order No. 4 in 1971, which further refined the definitions of minority groups and implied the requirement of flexible quotas to fill, although with the conclusion of the case of California v. Bakke in 1978, the Supreme Court found quotas to be unlawful, but race was upheld as a valid deciding factor in choosing a diverse student body.

SEE ALSO: Civil Rights Act of 1964Johnson, Lyndon B.


Stephen Cahn, “Stephen Cahn on the History of Affirmative Action (1995),”; and Marquita Sykes, “The Origins of Affirmative Action,”