Affirmative action, as a term, came to the fore in 1935 with the Wagner Act, a federal law that gave workers the right to form and join unions. But John F. Kennedy was the first president to link the term specifically with a policy meant to advance racial equality, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
In 1961, Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, establishing the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and requiring federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson cemented the connection with his own, more expansive, executive order.
Over time, the term took hold in education as well, spurred on by the civil rights movement and social unrest, according to Jerome Karabel’s history of Ivy League admissions, “The Chosen.”
The assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a turning point, with students pushing colleges to redouble their efforts to be more representative of American society. Less than four weeks after Dr. King’s death, Harvard’s dean of admissions announced a commitment to enrolling a substantially higher number of Black students than in the past.
The dean said that a student who had “survived the hazards of poverty,” was “intellectually thirsty” and “had room for growth,” would be given preference, Dr. Karabel recounts.
For the Harvard class admitted in 1969, Black enrollment jumped. Of the 1,202 freshmen in the class, 90 were African American, up from 51 in 1968, a 76 percent increase, according to Dr. Karabel. Competitors like Yale, Princeton and Columbia also stepped up efforts to enroll Black students.
Through decades of legal decisions, the scope and meaning of affirmative action have changed — far from what schools may have first envisioned. No longer are universities allowed to use affirmative action as a remedy to alleviate centuries of racism in the United States. Now, affirmative action is legal if admissions programs seek to assemble varied student bodies, with race as one factor among many — but the enduring element of race is what is being challenged in court today.