Griggs v. Duke Power

In 1966, fourteen African American employees of the Duke Power Steam Station in Draper, North Carolina filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They were working in the lowest level positions in the Labor Department, doing janitorial work. Each had been denied a transfer to other jobs at the company, which they were sure they could perform. In 1955, the company announced that it would hire only high school graduates for jobs of higher status than the Labor Department. The company however, continued to promote white workers without high school diplomas for these jobs. The Griggs plaintiffs had varying educational levels, from third grade to high school graduate. The company also instituted a requirement that to work in all but the lowest-paying jobs as laborers, employees had to register a minimum score on aptitude tests. In 1966, the eighty-one employees at the company in the four higher-paying types of employment—Coal Handling, Operations, Maintenance (of equipment), and Laboratory and Test—were all white. 

Encouraged by members of the Reidsville Chapter of the NAACP, especially its leader James A. Griggs, the plaintiffs challenged the newly implemented employment requirements of a high school diploma and intelligence tests. They claimed these requirements were unrelated to performing the jobs in question and that Duke Power Company’s policies discriminated against African American employees in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Furthermore, they requested that they be given promotions to jobs within the company when vacancies should occur. In bringing the case, filed in October 1966, the Griggs plaintiffs were represented by NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorneys led by Julius Chambers.3 Willie Boyd would become the spokesperson for the plaintiffs. They sought to change hiring and promotion practices, breaking down a powerful barrier to African American advancement and bringing greater equity to the workplace. The case took nearly five years to work its way through the courts, culminating in oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 1970.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, the Duke Power Co. implemented new requirements for employment and transfer within the company: a high school diploma or a passing score on two intelligence tests. On the surface, these requirements seemed to be efforts to increase the quality of their labor force. However, the U. S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, found that, even though these standards might not have been overtly discriminatory, they actually served to maintain the same system used during Jim Crow. These hiring and promotion practices favored white employees and affected African American employees negatively. This “disparate impact” theory boosted efforts to open workplaces all across the nation and remove barriers to employment for African Americans, women, and other groups. The Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited “the use of employment criteria that operate in a racially exclusionary fashion and do not measure skills or abilities necessary to performance of the jobs for which those criteria are used.” Further, Title VII required “the elimination of artificial, arbitrary, and unnecessary barriers to employment” and outlawed employment practices “that operate as ‘built-in headwinds’ for minority groups.” The company’s standardized testing requirement, then, violated this law. It was not intended to evaluate an employee’s ability to learn or perform a particular type of job within the company. Instead, such employment practices kept a disproportionate number of African Americans from being hired or getting promotions to better-paying positions.

Black and white image of a steam station with dam in the foreground.
Duke Power Steam Station, 1971, courtesy of MARC Museum



“Landmark Job Bias Case Won by LDF.” The Carolina Times (Durham, NC), March 20,1971, A1-A2. North Carolina Newspapers. North Carolina Digital Heritage Center.…;
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP. Legal Defense Fund. Griggs v. Duke Power. Reprinted from Westlaw with permission of Thomson Reuters. 401 U.S. 424, 91 S. Ct. 849. (2010).…;
Reidsville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Chapter Files. Reidsville, North Carolina. Supreme Court of the United States. Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971).…;
Supreme Court of the United States. Willie S. Griggs et al., Petitioners, v. DUKE POWER COMPANY. 401 U.S. 424, 91 S. Ct. 849. Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School.