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Civil Rights


Personal liberties that belong to an individual, owing to his or her status as a citizen or resident of a particular country or community.

The most common legal application of the term civil rights involves the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens and residents by legislation and by the Constitution. Civil rights protected by the Constitution include freedom of speech and freedom from certain types of discrimination.

Not all types of discrimination are unlawful, and most of an individual's personal choices are protected by the freedoms to choose personal associates; to express himself or herself; and to preserve personal privacy. Civil rights legislation comes into play when the practice of personal preferences and prejudices of an individual, a business entity, or a government interferes with the protected rights of others. The various civil rights laws have made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, handicap, or national origin. Discrimination that interferes with voting rights and equality of opportunity in education, employment, and housing is unlawful.

The term privileges and immunities is related to civil rights. Privileges and immunities encompass all rights of individuals that relate to people, places, and real and personal property. Privileges include all of the legal benefits of living in the United States, such as the freedom to sell land, draft a will, or obtain a divorce. Immunities are the protections afforded by law that prevent the government or other people from hindering another's enjoyment of his or her life, such as the right to be free from illegal searches and seizures and the freedom to practice religion without government persecution. The Privileges and Immunities Clause in Article IV of the U.S. Constitution states, "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States." The clause is designed to prevent each state from discriminating against

the people in other states in favor of its own citizens.

The bill of rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, delineates specific rights that are reserved for U.S. citizens and residents. No state can remove or abridge rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution.

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691, that the Constitution did not apply to African Americans because they were not citizens when the Constitution was written. After the Civil War, therefore, new laws were necessary for the purpose of extending civil liberties to the former slaves.

In 1865, the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution was enacted to make slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude unlawful. In addition, Congress was given the power to enact laws that were necessary to enforce this new amendment.

The fourteenth amendment, ratified in 1868, provides that every individual who is born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen and ensures that a state may not deprive a citizen or resident of his or her civil rights, including due process of law and equal protection of the laws. Congress is also empowered to enact laws for the enforcement of these rights.

The Origin of Federal Civil Rights Laws

During the period immediately following the Civil War, civil rights legislation was originally enacted by Congress, based upon its power under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to pass laws to enforce these rights. The first two of these laws were based upon the civil rights act of 1866 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1982), which had preceded the Fourteenth Amendment.

The first civil rights law guaranteed equal rights under the law for all people who lived within the jurisdiction of the United States. The second guaranteed each citizen an equal right to own, inherit, rent, purchase, and sell real property as well as personal property. The third original civil rights law, the ku klux klan act of 1871 (17 Stat. 13), provided citizens with the right to bring a civil action for a violation of protected rights. The fourth law made violation of such rights a criminal offense.

Subsequent Legislation

Although these initial laws purported to guarantee the civil rights of all citizens, including African Americans and other minorities,

they were effectively negated for most African-Americans in the late nineteenth century by the passage of jim crow laws, or black codes, in the South. These laws made it illegal for African-Americans to use the same public facilities as whites, restricted their travel, impeded their ability to vote, forbade interracial marriage, and generally relegated them to a legally inferior position.

In the 1896 landmark case plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Jim Crow law that required the segregation, or separation, of the races on railroad cars. The Court held that the Louisiana law in question was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as the facilities that were provided for each race were "separate but equal." This separate-but-equal doctrine was used to support other segregation laws applying to public schools and public facilities.

No significant civil rights legislation was enacted until many decades later, when the commission on civil rights was established by Congress in the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1975) to monitor and collect facts regarding race relations for consideration by Congress and the president. Congress subsequently passed the Civil Rights Act of 1960 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1971). The statute guarantees that qualified voters have the right to register to vote in any state and that they have the right to sue any person who prevents them from doing so. Voters possess this right to sue regardless of whether the individual who so prevents them is a state official or merely an individual who acting as one.

The civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000a et seq.) is the most comprehensive civil rights legislation in the history of the United States. It contains provisions for parity in the use and enjoyment of public accommodations, facilities, and education, as well as federally assisted programs and employment. Title VII of that act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on an employee's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, is regarded as the most inclusive source of employment rights. All employers who have at least 15 employees, including state and local governments and labor unions, are subject to its provisions, but it does not apply to the federal government, American Indian tribes, clubs, or religious organizations.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (25 U.S.C.A. § 1301 et seq.) proscribes discrimination in the sale and rental of most U.S. housing. It also prohibits discrimination in financing arrangements and extends to agents, brokers, and owners. Both the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts establish the right of an injured party to sue and to obtain damages from any individual who illegally infringes with a person's civil rights, conspires to deprive others of their civil rights, or abuses either government authority or public office to accomplish such unlawful acts.

In the area of education, a significant civil rights milestone was achieved in 1954 with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873. In Brown, the justices unanimously rejected the separate-but-equal doctrine that it had upheld in Plessy. They found that segregating black and white children in different public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Segregation, the Court held, effectively discriminates against African-American children by promoting in them a sense of inferiority that limits their opportunities in life. The Court also required that school districts desegregate "with all deliberate speed." integration, or desegregation, of public schools has been a divisive issue ever since. In particular, arguments arise over the practice of busing students a distance to school, a method that has been used, often by court order, to create a better racial balance.

The issue of segregation continues to cause strife. In 2002, Senate Majority Leader trent lott (R.-Miss.) suggested during comments at the 100th birthday party of retired Senator strom thurmond that he was proud that the state of Mississippi had supported Thurmond in a presidential bid in 1948. Thurmond had run on the so-called "Dixiecrat" platform that advocated segregation. The comments caused a storm of criticism directed at Lott, and he resigned as senate majority leader in December 2002.

In employment, common law permits an employer or labor union to discriminate for a valid reason in its relations with employees, unless otherwise provided by federal or state statute. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (29 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq.) initially restrained discrimination against employees or job applicants who engage in union activities. Subsequently, the act has been extended through various amendments to prohibit other forms of discrimination, including race and sex discrimination. In 1963, Congress enacted the Equal Pay Act (29 U.S.C.A. § 206), which requires that men and women be paid the same wages when they do substantially similar work. The federal equal employment opportunity commission (EEOC) is the initial forum for claims of illegal employment discrimination. It also publishes advisory guidelines that explain or define the law. Many states have agencies or human rights commissions that are similar to the EEOC.

The 1980s and Beyond

One result of civil rights legislation is affirmative action, which is the effort to enforce race and sex classifications when necessary to correct past discriminatory patterns. The ordering of affirmative action requires employers or labor unions to make concerted efforts to hire minorities who traditionally have been discouraged from seeking employment with them. The basis for affirmative action is that if such efforts are not made, unlawful discrimination will be perpetuated.

Affirmative action and other attempts to end discrimination raise new questions. For example, have efforts to help minorities and women begun to infringe on the rights of individuals outside of those groups, such as white men? Some argue that affirmative action results in reverse discrimination, which is prejudice or bias practiced against a particular person or class of people in order to remedy a pattern of past discrimination against another individual or group of individuals.

Much of the attention on the constitutionality of affirmative action programs has focused upon the federal courts of appeals. The most heated controversy has centered on affirmative action programs in higher education. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. Texas,78 F.3d 932 (5th Cir. 1996) held that a program at the University of Texas School of Law granting preferences to minorities in admissions decisions was unconstitutional. This case stirred a national debate, and several commentators noted that the percentage of minorities who were admitted to the school dropped markedly after the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the decision to stand when it denied certioari.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified some of the confusion experienced by the lower federal courts with respect to affirmative action programs in higher education. In Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S.___, 123 S. Ct. 2325, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003), the Court upheld a practice by the law school at the University of Michigan that considered race one of the factors the school considered when admitting students. The ruling upheld the decision in board of regents of the university of california v. bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 98 S. Ct. 2733, 57 L. Ed. 2d 750 (1978), a controversial decision that had likewise allowed schools to consider race as a factor in admissions. In a companion case to Grutter, however the Court limited the scope of affirmative action programs of universities when it struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions policies. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. ___, 123 S. Ct. 2411, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2003). Unlike the law school's admissions policies at Michigan, the undergraduate admissions department added a certain number of "points" to the application of a racial minority. Because the university added these points automatically without consideration of the individual applicant, the Court held that this policy could not pass constitutional muster.

After President ronald reagan appointed three justices to the U.S. Supreme Court during his two presidential terms between 1981 and 1989, the Court proceeded to render more conservative opinions regarding civil rights. For example, in Patterson v. McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 109 S. Ct. 2363, 105 L. Ed. 2d 132 (1989), it addressed the issue of discrimination in the private sector and held that section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 barred only racial discrimination in hiring, and thus not racial harassment while on the job. Minority-rights groups were disappointed by the ruling and saw it as part of a general trend toward making civil rights violations more difficult to prove. However, Justice anthony m. kennedy, who wrote the Court's opinion, stated, "Neither our words nor our decisions should be interpreted as signaling one inch of retreat from Congress's policy to forbid discrimination in the private, as well as the public, sphere."

Less controversial have been developments in the area of civil rights for handicapped people. In 1990, President george h. w. bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 47 U.S.C.A.] [effective 1992]), which was quickly hailed as the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled persons in employment, public accommodations, transportation, and telecommunications. Referred to as the bill of rights for physically and mentally disabled citizens—who were estimated to number 43 million at the time of the act's passage—the act supersedes previous state and local laws and extends protection to any person with a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual."

The act includes many features that are intended to improve living conditions for those with disabilities. For example, employers, providers of public transportation, and private businesses with public accommodation (such as theaters, restaurants, hotels, and banks) must make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled persons. Often such accommodations must include wheelchair access. Similarly, all commuter and intercity trains are required to have at least one car that is handicapped-accessible, and telephone companies must provide relay operators for hearing-impaired individuals who use special telecommunications devices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Pub. L. No. 102-166, 105 Stat. 1071 [codified in scattered sections of 42, 29, 2 U.S.C.A.]) marked another important step in civil rights legislation. The act repudiated several U.S. Supreme Court decisions on civil rights; granted women and disabled persons the right to recover money damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and granted congressional employees the protection of Title VII. Among the high court's decisions that were overturned by the 1991 act was Patterson. Section 101 of the act states that employees may sue for damages experienced through racial discrimination in hiring, promotion, dismissal, and all other terms of employment. The changes in Title VII employee-discrimination cases entitle plaintiffs to jury trials and allow them to recover damages in addition to back pay.

Although many minority groups have made rapid advances toward recognition of their civil rights, one group that continues to struggle is the homosexual community. Similar to ethnic and racial minorities, individuals who identify themselves as homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual have long been subject to disparate treatment from the majority. Although gay and lesbian rights groups have made advances toward changing perceptions in society, challenges in the courts have been only marginally successful.

Gay and lesbian rights group claimed a victory in 1996 with the Supreme Court's decision in romer v. evans, 517 U.S. 620, 116 S. Ct. 1620, 134 L. Ed. 2d 855 (1996). In that case, a constitutional amendment in the state of Colorado prohibited governmental units from passing any statute, regulation, or ordinance purporting to protect the rights of homosexuals or bisexuals. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause because it explicitly denies a single group protection under the law.

Although Romer represented one of the first major victories for gay and lesbian groups, other decisions have been less favorable. In boy scouts of america v. dale, 530 U.S. 640, 120 S. Ct. 2446, 147 L. Ed. 2d 554 (2000), the Court held that the Boy Scouts could properly exclude gay boys from their organization based upon the principle of freedom of association. Due in large part to their limited success in the courts and legislatures, gay and lesbian advocates have focused much of their attention on changing societal perceptions of homosexual, bisexuals, and other similar minority groups.

Another issue that has arisen in the courts with respect to civil rights is the limitations placed upon section 1983 actions against governmental officials for violations of constitutional rights. For instance, in Board of County Commissioners of Bryan County, Okla. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 117 S. Ct. 12382, 137 L. Ed. 2d 626 (1997), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that a plaintiff cannot recover in an action under section 1983 under a theory of repondeat superior. The plaintiff in the case was injured when a police officer forced her to the ground after a chase. The officer had been hired by his great-uncle, a county sheriff, despite the fact that he had had a number of criminal convictions. The plaintiff claimed that the sheriff and the county had shown a reckless indifference toward her constitutional rights through their hiring practices. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, holding that a plaintiff in a Section 1983 action must prove that a governmental unit, through deliberate conduct, was a moving force behind the alleged injury.

Prisoners' Rights

Lawsuits brought by prisoners to recover damages for alleged violations of their civil rights have caused problems in American legal systems. Many of these cases have involved alleged violations by prisons or prison officials against inmates. Although many of these claims have no valid legal basis, some do, so courts must determine, among the thousands of cases that are filed each year, which ones have merit. In response to these claims, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1932 (2003), which requires prisoners to pay filing fees and restricts the amount of money damages that prisoners can recover.

Prisoners have prevailed on a variety of claims, notwithstanding limitations placed upon their court actions. For example, in Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 118 S. Ct. 1584, 140 L. Ed. 2d 759 (1998), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed an appellate court decision that had imposed a higher burden of persuasion on inmate claims. Similarly, prisoners are periodically successful in claims that prison officials have deprived them of constitutional rights, including due process of law.

However, the majority of claims by inmates fail. For instance, in Correctional Services Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 122 S. Ct. 515, 151 L. Ed. 2d 456 (2001), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff held in a halfway house that was operated by a private corporation under a contract with the federal government could not sue the corporation. The plaintiff had sought to bring the case under the rule in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S. Ct. 1999, 29 L. Ed. 2d 619 (1971) (called a Bivens action), which allows for suits against federal officials who have violated the civil rights of plaintiffs. The Court in Malesko held that Bivens actions do not apply the to acts of government agencies or business entities and ruled against the plaintiff.

further readings

Abraham, Henry J., and Barbara A. Perry. 2003. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Hepple, Bob, and Erika M. Szyszczak, eds. 1992. Discrimination: the Limits of Law. New York: Mansell.

Lewis, Harold S. Jr., and Elizabeth J. Norman. 2001. Civil Rights Law and Practice. St. Paul, Minn.: West.

Rutland, George H., ed. 2001. Civil Rights in America. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers.

Shull, Steven H. 1999. American Civil Rights Policy from Truman to Clinton: the Role of Presidential Leadership. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.


Civil Rights Acts; Ku Klux Klan Act; Section 1983; Voting Rights Act of 1965. See also primary documents in "Civil Rights" section of Appendix.

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Civil Rights and Liberties


CIVIL RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES refer to the various spheres of individual and group freedoms that are deemed to be so fundamental as not to tolerate infringement by government. These include the fundamental political rights, especially the franchise, that offer the citizen the opportunity to participate in the administration of governmental affairs. Since these individual and group freedoms may also be abridged by the action or inaction of private institutions, demand has increased for positive governmental action to promote and encourage their preservation.

Constitutional provisions, statutes, and court decisions have been the principal means of acknowledging the civil rights and liberties of individuals; for those rights to be maximized, their acknowledgment must be accompanied by legislation and judicial enforcement. Any conception of individual rights that does not include this action component may actually be instrumental in limiting the exercise of such rights.

Constitutional Provisions

The U.S. Constitution, drawn up in the summer of 1787, included guarantees of the following civil rights and liberties: habeas corpus (Article I, section 9); no bills of attainder or ex post facto laws (Article I, sections 9 and 10); jury trial (Article III, sections 2 and 3); privileges and immunities (Article IV, section 2), later interpreted to be a guarantee that each state would treat citizens of other states in the same way they treated their own citizens; and no religious test for public office (Article VI, paragraph 3). Four years later ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) were added to the Constitution in response to demands for more specific restrictions on the national government. The Bill of Rights guarantees certain substantive rights (notably freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of religious worship) and certain procedural rights in both civil and criminal actions (notably a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury). In 1833 (Barron v. Baltimore, 7 Peters 243) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these amendments were designed to serve as protections against federal encroachment alone and did not apply to state and local governments. The Supreme Court's position in this case, as stated by Chief Justice John Marshall, was to prevail throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, despite the efforts of attorneys who argued that the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause (1868) was to extend the protection of the Bill of Rights to the actions of states and localities. From 1925 (Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652) through 1969 (Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784), Supreme Court rulings had the effect of incorporating most of the major provisions of the Bill of Rights into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, there by making them applicable to states and localities as well as to the federal government.

Prior to the adoption of the Civil War amendments there had been little effort to invoke federal authority to preserve individual rights. Furthermore, revisionist historians have shown that the generation that framed the first state declarations of rights and the federal Bill of Rights was not as libertarian as is traditionally assumed—the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798 being a case in point. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and the five general civil rights acts spanning the years 1866–1875 established the bases for a vast expansion of federal authority. Although the Thirteenth abolished slavery and involuntary servitude and the Fifteenth prohibited the abridgment of a citizen's fight to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, the Fourteenth proved to be of greatest import to the sub-sequent development of individual rights.

The first sentence of section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment defines U.S. citizenship: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." This provision overturned the Supreme Court's 1857 decision in the Dred Scott Case (19 Howard 393) and recognized the primacy of national citizenship. (Citizenship was later described by Chief Justice Earl Warren [Perez v. Brownell, 356 U.S. 44, 64 (1958)] as "man's basic right, for it is nothing less than the right to have rights.") The remainder of the first section of the amendment prohibits the states from abridging the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States (which the courts interpreted quite narrowly); depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; and denying any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Judicial Interpretation

The five general civil rights acts of the post–Civil War period were efforts to implement the Civil War amendments. Although Congress was primarily motivated by a concern for the newly freed blacks, these statutes—which provided federal protection of individual rights against interference by either public officials or private individuals—never made specific references to African Americans as such. The last of these nineteenth-century civil rights statutes, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, was designed to guarantee to blacks equal accommodations with white citizens in all inns, public conveyances, theaters, and other public places. In 1883 the Supreme Court (Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3) concluded that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment had not intended to enable Congress to prohibit private persons from discriminating against blacks. The Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted as prohibiting discriminatory acts by the states only, and consequently the act was declared void.

The major test of state legislation designed to support the segregation and suppression of blacks came in 1896. In Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537) the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana statute requiring separate accommodations for blacks and whites on public carriers, so long as the accommodations were equal. In the years that followed, segregation of the races on the basis of the separate-but-equal doctrine became commonplace throughout the South, and segregation resulting from Jim Crow legislation continued to be pervasive into the mid-twentieth century; in 1947 President Harry S. Truman's Committee on Civil Rights reported that the separate-but-equal doctrine was "one of the outstanding myths of American history, for it is almost always true that while indeed separate, … facilities are far from equal."

The separate-but-equal doctrine became deeply entrenched in the field of public education in the South, and it was not until 1938 (Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337) that the Supreme Court began to examine the equality requirement. From then until 1950 the Court, in a series of cases involving graduate school education, held that the separate facilities provided for black students were not equal educationally, but in granting relief to black plaintiffs, the Court did not publicly reexamine the separate-but-equal doctrine. Nevertheless, these decisions paved the way for the Supreme Court's landmark decision of 17 May 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483), overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent and unanimously holding that the separate-but-equal doctrine had no place in the field of public education. The Court based its decision on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. A companion case that year (Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497) prohibited segregation in the public schools of the District of Columbia.

A year later, in its implementation decree in the Brown case, the Court ordered the desegregation process to be carried out "with all deliberate speed." Massive resistance ensued, most notably in Arkansas and Virginia, and in 1964 (Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, 377 U.S. 218) the Court held that the time for mere "deliberate speed" had run out. Subsequent implementation decrees emphasized the obligation of school districts to terminate dual school systems at once and to operate only unitary schools thereafter. When confronted in 1971 with the question of the scope of a federal district court's ability to order school busing to correct state-enforced racial school segregation, the Supreme Court was unanimous in finding that the district court had not transcended the limits of "reasonableness" in its remedial order concerning busing (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 402 U.S. 1). After rejecting in 1974 arguments that courts could order metropolitan-wide busing to remedy past discrimination (Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717), the Supreme Court became increasingly skeptical about the ability of courts to eliminate racially identifiable schools in urban areas.

The Court in Plessy v. Ferguson had distinguished between social rights, such as the right to ride on public transportation and the right to education, and civil and political rights, saying that the Constitution protected only the latter. Activist groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union would soon argue against that distinction. Eventually the idea of civil rights expanded to include the right against discrimination in employment, in housing, and in all places of public accommodation.

The Civil Rights Movement and New Legislation

The nonviolent civil rights movement, which had its beginning in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott of 1955–1956 led by Martin Luther King Jr., received increasing national attention during the sit-ins and freedom rides of the early 1960s. Mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, also led by King, further heightened the urgency of African American demands and helped precipitate President John F. Kennedy's civil rights legislative proposals of June 1963. This legislation, including provisions regarding access to public accommodations, use of federal funds without discrimination, and equal employment opportunity, was signed into law on 2 July 1964, during the early months of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration. It was the most far-reaching civil rights legislation since 1875.

The public accommodations title of the 1964 act, Title II, was similar in substance to the 1875 provisions struck down in the Civil Rights Cases; this time the legislation rested upon both the Commerce Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court in 1964 found the Commerce Clause fully adequate to sustain the public accommodations title (Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S., 379 U.S. 241, and Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294).

Title VI, which prohibited discrimination in any federally assisted programs, was to prove instrumental in accelerating school desegregation during the Johnson administration. In particular, the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided funds of sufficient magnitude so that most school districts would be at a serious disadvantage should they lose federal assistance for failing to desgregate. Finally, Title VII created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which struggled for seven years before it was granted enforcement powers—that is, the ability to institute suits in federal courts to enforce U.S. laws against job discrimination.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in the aftermath of black-led demonstrations, especially in Selma, Alabama, against discriminatory practices in voter registration in the South. This was the most sweeping voting rights legislation of the century, even though there had been antecedents in the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1970, in addition to being a five-year extension of the 1965 act, included provision for the eighteen-year-old vote in all elections. Before the year was over, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was invoked to test the constitutionality of the new minimum voting age provisions. Although the Court sustained them insofar as they pertained to federal elections, it held that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause and enforcement clause did not authorize Congress to impose such a requirement in state and local elections. This necessitated the adoption of the Twenty-sixth Amendment, which lowered the minimum voting age to eighteen in all elections.

Of the major civil rights problems confronting the country, housing was the last to be dealt with by Congress. It was not until 1968, shortly after the assassination of King, that Congress—in a new Civil Rights Act—prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of about 80 percent of the nation's housing, the major exceptions being owner-occupied dwellings with no more than four units and the sale or rental of private homes without the services of a real estate agent.

As the nation's largest minority, blacks have been in the vanguard of efforts to secure individual civil rights. However, the other large minority groups—Indians, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asians—have been victims of the same types of discrimination. Unquestionably, the black revolution has had a salutary effect on the struggles of these minorities to actualize the civil rights guaranteed them by the Constitution. One example is the so-called Indian Civil Rights Act, a rider to the Civil Rights Act of 1968. In view of the anomalous position of the tribal governments of American Indians, the legislation was designed to ensure that tribal governments would be bound by the same limitations imposed by the Constitution on the federal and state governments.

Civil Liberties

The term "civil rights" has been associated with claims by racial minorities against racial discrimination. The term "civil liberties" refers to rights to political participation, particularly freedom of expression and in more recent years the right to privacy, held by every citizen. The scope of protection accorded civil liberties was relatively narrow until the 1960s, in part because the Supreme Court defined freedom of expression narrowly and in part because state infringements on civil liberties could not be challenged until the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protected people against such infringements. By the late 1960s, however, the Court had developed a robust jurisprudence of civil liberties, insulating speech from punishment unless it threatened immediate social harm, guaranteeing citizens the right to conduct political demonstrations in public places, and protecting the right of privacy in connection with reproductive decisions. Later Court decisions refused to extend these protective doctrines significantly, but the Court's decisions had nurtured a culture of rights that placed political limits on what legislatures could do when addressing concerns that speech caused social harm.


Abraham, Henry J., and Barbara A. Perry. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Garrow, David J. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Knopf, 1975.

To Secure These Rights: The Report of the President's Commission on Civil Rights. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Post Office, 1947.

Urofsky, Melvin I. A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Wilkinson, J. Harvie III. From Brown to Bakke: The Supreme Court and School Integration, 1954–1978. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.



See alsoBill of Rights in U.S. Constitution ; Busing ; Civil Rights Act of 1866 ; Civil Rights Act of 1957 ; Civil Rights Act of 1964 ; Civil Rights Act of 1991 ; Civil Rights Movement ; Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 ; Equal Protection of the Law ; First Amendment .

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Civil Rights

34. Civil Rights

Civil rights laws are among the most volatile and controversial in the American legal system. The force behind these laws is that certain groups of individuals in our society need protection from infringement on certain basic rights that are recognized under our legal system and are inherent in our form of government.

Civil rights are considered fundamental to all citizens under the Constitution of the United States. These rights include freedom of speech and association, freedom to seek employment, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religious belief, race, or national origin. When certain groups have historically been denied any of these civil rights, the government has stepped in to make it illegal to interfere in that groups exercise of their rights. For example, African Americans historically have been excluded from certain types of activities in pursuit of their livelihoods. Thus civil rights laws have been enacted at both the federal and state levels to both guarantee African Americans their rights to freely seek employment in the workplace and to obtain an education in the institution of their choice without fear of discrimination on the basis of race and to provide a legal remedy for individuals who are discriminated against. Under civil rights law, acts by certain classes of people that deny others their civil rights can be either criminal in nature or actionable in civil court.

Federal civil rights laws may be enforced by the Justice Department. Usually, violations of the laws are punished by fines and/or injunctions. They may also serve as the basis for private lawsuits by individuals. Civil rights laws usually specify limits to the amount of recovery available in lawsuits filed under them. Also, they often require that a civil rights suit be filed under the available statute, rather than under general common law. This is called the doctrine of preemption, where civil rights laws preempt ordinary tort actions. Preemption is important because it caps the amount of damages for which a defendant may be liable.

Many states have gone even further than the federal laws in protecting civil rights. In those states that have established their own civil rights laws, most have authorized either the creation of new state agencies or have authorized existing agencies to handle the enforcement, administration, and/or investigation of violations of the laws. In some cases, the jurisdiction of the agencies is preemptive. For example, if a worker is fired because of his or her age, the firing may violate civil rights laws against age discrimination. If the state laws preempt private actions, the employee may only bring the complaint against the employer through the state agency or under the state law. In this case, the employee is bound by any restrictions regarding the type or size of the remedy. If the state law is not preemptive, or if the state law permits separate rights of action by the employee, the employee will be free to pursue his or her own course of action against the employer in court. The potential recovery for individual acts of discrimination or other civil rights infringements can be virtually limitless.

In many states civil rights laws may be very specifically divided in coverage and in agencies within state government. Housing and employment are the most frequent specific types of discrimination covered by state laws.

Table 34: Civil Rights
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
ALABAMA25-1-20, et seq. (Age); 24-8-1, et seq. (Housing)Age: Alabama Department of Economic and Community AffairsNoYesAge: Yes;Housing: DiscretionaryAge: 300 days;Housing: 180 days with agency; 1 yr. private actions
ALASKA18.80.200, et seq. (Generally ); 14.18.010 (Education)Commission for Human Rights; Board of RegentsNoYesDiscretionaryNot specified
ARIZONA41-1401, et seq.Civil Rights Advisory BoardNo§41-1492.08 (c): Yes§41-1481 (J): Yes2 yrs.; 180 days through the Civil Rights Division §41-1492.09
ARKANSAS21-3-201, et seq. (Public Employment); 4-87-101, et seq. (Credit); 11-4-601 (Employment); 16-123-107, et seq. (Generally)Employment: Department of LaborNoPublic Employment: No; Credit: Yes;Employment: Yes; Generally: YesCredit: Yes; Employment: Yes;Generally: DiscretionaryCredit: 1 yr.; Employment: 2 yrs.;Generally: 1 yr.
CALIFORNIACiv. §§51, et seq. (Public Accommodations) Gov. §12940 et seq. (Housing & employmentCiv §§51: None; Gov. §12940: Dept. of Fair Employment and HousingNoYesYesCiv. §51: 3 yrs.; Gov. §12940: 1 yr./agency
COLORADO24-34-301,et seq. (Generally)Civil Rights Commission24-34-305: Yes, with exception24-34-306: YesYes24-34-306: variable
CONNECTICUT46a-51, et seq. (Generally)Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities46a-52: YesYesYes180 days, except violation of §46a-80a: 30 days
DELAWARETit. 6 §4601, et seq. (Housing); Tit. 19 §710, et seq. (Employment); Tit. 6 §4500, et seq. (Public Accommodations)Housing & Public Accommodations: Human Relations Commission; Employment: Dept. of LaborYesHousing: Yes; Employment: Yes; Public Accommodations: NoHousing: Yes;Employment: Yes; Public Accomodations: NoEmployment: 90/120 days; Housing: 1 yr.;Public Accommodations: 90 days
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA2-1401.01, et seq. (Generally); 7-1001, et seq. (Handicapped)Generally: Commission on Human Rights; Handicapped: NoneNoGenerally: Yes; Handicapped: NoGenerally: Yes;Handicapped: NoGenerally: 1 yr.;Handicapped: Not specified
FLORIDA760.01, et seq.Commission on Human RelationsYesYes, after exhaustionYes365 days/agency
GEORGIA7-6-1 and 2 (Credit); 34-1-2 (Age); 45-19-20, et seq. (Public Employment); 8-3-200, et seq. (Housing)Public Employment and Housing: Commission on Equal OpportunitiesNo7-6-2: Yes; 34-1-2: No; Public Employment: No;Housing: Yes7-6-2: No; 34-1-2: No; Public Employment: Discretionary; Housing: YesPublic Employment: 180 days/agency Housing: 1 yr./agency, 2 yrs./private
HAWAII378-1, et seq. (Employment); 515-1, et seq. (Housing); 489-1, et seq. (Public Accommodations)Employment, Housing, Public Accommodations: Civil Rights CommissionYesEmployment: No;Housing: Yes, with exceptions; Public Accommodations: YesEmployment: Yes;Housing: Yes;Public Accommodations: YesEmployment: 90 days; Housing: 1 yr.; Public Accommodations: Not specified
IDAHO67-5901, et seq. (Generally)Commission on Human RightsNoYesNo1 yr.
ILLINOIS775 ILCS 5/1-101 and 102; 5/7A-102 and 104Human Rights Commission and Dept. of Human RightsYesYes, for temporary reliefYes180 days
INDIANA22-9-1-1, et seq.Civil Rights CommissionNoYesNoNot specified
IOWA216.1, et seq. (Generally); 729.4 (Employment)Generally: Civil Rights Commission; 729.4: NoneGenerally: Yes 729.4: NoGenerally: Yes; 729.4: NoGenerally: Yes; 729.4: NoGenerally: 180 days; 729.4: Not specified
KANSAS44-1001, et seq. (Generally); 44-1015, et seq. (Housing); 44-1111, et seq. (Employment and Age)Generally, Housing, Employment and Age: Commission on Human RightsYesGenerally: No; Housing: Yes; Employment and Age: NoNoGenerally: 6 months; Housing: 1 yr.;Employment and Age: 300 days
KENTUCKY344.010, et seq. (Generally)Commission on Human RightsYesYesYes180 days
LOUISIANA46:2251, et seq. (Handicapped); 51:2601, et seq. (Housing); 23:301, et seq. (Employment)Handicapped: None;Housing: Louisiana Dept. of Justice;Employment: NoneHandicapped: No Housing: No; Employment: NoHandicapped: Yes;Housing: Yes; Employment: YesHandicapped: Yes;Housing: Yes;Employment: YesHandicapped: 80 days to 1 yr.; Housing: 1 yr./agency, 2 yrs./private action; Employment: Not specified
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
MAINETit. 5 §§4551, et seq.Human Rights CommissionYesYesYes, with conditions6 months
MARYLANDArt. 49B§1, et seq.Commission on Human RelationsYesYesDiscretionaryArt. 49B§9A: 6 months
MASSACHUSETTSCh. 151B §1, et seq. (Generally); Ch. 272 §§92A, 98 (Public Accommodations)Generally: Commission Against Discrimination; Public Accommodations: NoneGenerally: Yes; Public Accommodations: NoGenerally: No; Public Accomodations: YesGenerally: Yes; Public Accomodations: NoGenerally: 300 days; Civil Rights Actions: 3 yrs.civil action (Ch. 260 §5B)
MICHIGANMCL 37.2101, et seq.Civil Rights CommissionNoYesYes3 yrs.
MINNESOTA363A.01, et seq.Dept. of Human RightsNoYesYes1 yr.
MISSISSIPPI43-33-723, et seq. (Government Housing) 25-9-149 (State Service Employment)Government Housing: Home Corporation Oversight Committee; State Service Employment: NoneGovernment Housing: Yes; State Service Employment: YesGovernment Housing: No; State Service Employment: NoGovernment Housing: No; State Service Employment: NoGovernment Housing: Not specified; State Service Employment: Not specified
MISSOURICh. 213.010, et seq. (Generally); Ch. 408.550 (Credit)Generally: Commission on Human Rights; Credit: NoneGenerally: Yes; Credit: NoGenerally: Yes; Credit: YesYesGenerally: 180 days with commission; 2 yrs. civil action; Credit: Not specified.
MONTANA49-2-101, et seq. (Generally); 49-4-101, et seq. (Handicapped)Generally: Commission for Human Rights; Handicapped: NoneGenerally: Yes; Handicapped: NoGenerally: Yes; Handicapped: YesGenerally: Yes;Handicapped: YesGenerally: 180 to 300 days;Handicapped: 2 yrs. (§27-2-211)
NEBRASKACh. 20-301, et seq. (Generally); 48-1001, et seq. (Age); 48-1101, et seq. ( Employment)Equal Opportunity CommissionGenerally: No; Age: Yes; Employment: YesYesGenerally: Yes; Age: Not specified; Employment: Yes300 days; Generally and Age: variable
NEVADA613.310, et seq. (Employment); 651.050, et seq. (Public Accommodations) Ch. 598B.010, et seq. (Credit)Employment: Equal Rights Commission; Public Accommodations: Equal Rights Commission; Credit: Banking DivisionEmployment: Yes; Public Accommodations: No; Credit: NoYesEmployment: Yes; Public Accommodations: Yes; Credit: NoEmployment: 180 days; Public Accommodations: 1 yr.; Credit: 1 yr.
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
NEW HAMPSHIRECh. 354-A:1, et seq.Commission for Human RightsYesNoDiscretionary180 days
NEW JERSEY10:5-1, et seq.Division on Civil RightsNoYesYes180 days/agency, 2 yrs./private action
NEW MEXICO28-1-1, et seq.Human Rights CommissionNoYesYes180 days with commission/30 days for de novo appeal
NEW YORKExec. §290, et seq. (Generally); Civ. Rights §§18a to 47c (Public Accommodations and Public Housing)Generally: Division of Human Rights; Public Accommodations and Public Housing: State Human Rights Appeal BoardNoYesNoGenerally: variable; Public Accommodations and Public Housing: Not specified
NORTH CAROLINA143-422.1, et seq. (Employment); 41A-1, et seq. (Housing)Human Relations CommissionNoEmployment: No; Housing: YesEmployment: No; Housing: YesEmployment: None; Housing: 1 yr.
NORTH DAKOTA14-02.4-01, et seq.Division of Human RightsNoYesYes180 days (Housing); 300 days (Employment)
OHIOCh. 4112.01, et seq. (Generally)Civil Rights CommissionNoYesDiscretionary1 yr.
OKLAHOMATit. 25 §1101, et seq.Human Rights CommissionYesNoYes180 days
OREGON659A.001, et seq.Bureau of Labor and IndustriesNoYesYes1 yr.
PENNSYLVANIATit. 43 §951, et seq.Human Relations CommissionYesYesDiscretionary180 days/agency, 2 yrs./private action
RHODE ISLAND34-37-1, et seq. (Housing); 28-5-1, et seq. (Employment); 42-87-1, et seq. (Handicapped)Handicapped, Housing: Commission for Human Rights; Employment: Commission Against DiscriminationHandicapped, Housing: No; Employment: YesYesYesHousing: 1 yr./agency, 2 yrs./private action; Employment: 1 yr.;Handicapped: Not specified
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
SOUTH CAROLINA1-13-10, et seq. (Employment); 31-21-10, et seq. (Housing)Human Affairs CommissionEmployment: Yes; Housing: NoEmployment: No; Housing: YesEmployment: No; Housing: YesEmployment: 180 days; Housing: 180 days/agency, 1 yr./private action
SOUTH DAKOTA20-13-1, et seq. (Generally); 60-12-15, et seq. (Sex)Generally: Commission of Human Rights; Sex: NoneGenerally: Yes; Sex: NoGenerally: Yes; Sex: YesGenerally: Yes; Sex: YesGenerally: 180 days; Sex: 2 yrs.
TENNESSEE4-21-101, et seq.Human Rights CommissionNoYesYes180 days/agency; 1 yr./private action
TEXASHum. Res. §121.001, et seq. (Disabled); Lab. §21.001, et seq. (Employment); Prop. §301.001, et seq. (Housing)Hum.: None; Lab., Prop.: Human Rights CommissionNoYesNoHum.:Not specified; Lab.: 180 days/agency, 2 yrs./private action; Prop: 1 yr./agency, 2 yrs./private
UTAH13-7-1, et seq. (Public accommodations); 34A-5-101, et seq. (Employment); 57-21-1, et seq. (Housing)Public Accommodations: None;Employment: Antidiscrimination Division; Housing: Labor CommissionPublic Accommodations: No; Employment: Yes; Housing: NoPublic Accommodations: Yes; Employment: No; Housing: YesPublic Accommodations: Not specified; Employment: Yes;Housing: YesPublic Accommodations: 3 yrs. (§78-12-26); Employment: 180 days; Housing: 180 days/agency, 2 yrs./private
VERMONTTit. 9 §4501, et seq. (Public Accommodations); Tit. 21 §495, et seq. (Employment)Public Accommodations Human Rights Commission; Employment: NoneNoYesYesPublic Accommodations: Not specified; Employment: 6 yrs. (Tit. 12 §511)
VIRGINIA36-96.1, et seq. (Housing); 40.1-28.6 (Equal Pay); 2.2-3900, et seq. (Generally)Housing: Fair Housing Board and Real Estate Board; Equal Pay: None; Generally: Human Rights CouncilNoYesHousing: Yes; Equal Pay: No; Generally: YesHousing: 1 yr./agency, 2 yr./private; Generally: 180 days
WASHINGTON49.60.010, et seq.Human Rights CommissionNoYesYes6 months except real estate 1 yr.
WEST VIRGINIA5-11-1, et seq.Human Rights CommissionNoYesYes1 yr./agency; 2 yrs./private action
StateCode SectionAgencyAdministrative PreemptionPrivate Action Permitted?Attorney FeesStatute of Limitation
WISCONSIN106.50 (Housing and Public Places); 111.31, et seq. (Employment)Housing and Public Places and Employment: Dept. of Workfare DevelopmentHousing and Public Places: No;Employment: YesHousing and Public Places: Yes;Employment: YesHousing and Public Places: Yes; Employment: NoHousing and Public Places: 1 yr./private action, 1 yr./agency; Employment: 300 days
WYOMING27-9-101, et seq. (Employment)Dept. of EmploymentYesNoNo90 days

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Civil Rights

Civil Rights




The term civil rights refers to equal treatment for individuals under the law. Political scientists Morris Fiorina, Paul Peterson, D. Stephen Voss, and Bertram Johnson define civil rights as embody[ing] the American guarantee to equal treatment under the lawnot just for racial groups, as people often assume, but more generally (2007, p. 381). Civil rights are related to, but distinct from, civil liberties and human rights. In the American context, civil liberties are the freedoms granted to citizens in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These include, among other things, the freedoms of speech, peaceable assembly, and religion; protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, forced self-incrimination, and cruel and unusual punishment; and, for criminal suspects, the rights to a trial by jury and to representation by an attorney. These protections derive largely from the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments, all part of the Bill of Rights. Many other nations also grant both civil rights and civil liberties to their citizens through their constitutions or legislation.

Human rights are those rights that most scholars believe all human beings should have, regardless of which nation they live in. In 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that human rights include, among other things, rights to life, liberty, security, travel, property ownership, education, free thought and religion, work, rest, leisure, and an adequate standard of living. The declaration also prohibits governments from certain practices, including torture and arbitrary arrest and detention. Human rights, then, are conferred not by individual nations, but by virtue of being human. Human rights may also be more broadly defined to include some rights outside the reach of both civil rights and civil liberties.


Civil rights derive from the U.S. Constitution, specifically the Fourteenth Amendments equal protection clause, which states that government cannot deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. In practice, government often draws distinctions between individuals, and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits some, but not all, of these distinctions. When governments can treat people differently is a question often resolved by the courts. Some distinctions, such as race, are automatically suspect; the courts apply strict scrutiny, where government must demonstrate a compelling state interest and show there is no other way to pursue that interest. This test is very difficult to meet. In 1978 the Supreme Court prohibited a strictly race-based quota system for admitting students to the medical school at the University of California at Davis. In 1995 the Court prohibited a program that awarded municipal contracts to minority-owned firms on the basis of race.

Other distinctions, such as gender, receive heightened scrutiny, which is somewhat less demanding. Still, the courts often overturn government actions that treat men and women differently. In 1976 the Supreme Court overturned an Oklahoma law that established a drinking age of twenty-one for men but eighteen for women. And in 1996 the Court prohibited the state-run Virginia Military Institutes policy of admitting only male students. Still other distinctions, such as age, are evaluated by the courts based on whether the government can show a rational basis for its action. For example, states seeking to place special restrictions on issuing drivers licenses to people over seventy-five years old must only show that the states actions are reasonably related to promoting a legitimate government purpose. In short, the answer to the question when can government treat individuals differently? depends on the basis for classifying people.


Civil rights are widely regarded as essential in democratic societies. The absence of civil rights would mean governments have few limits against enacting laws that enshrine unequal treatment by declaring some groups superior to others. American history provides many examples. The extreme racial segregation and discrimination against southern blacks between 1880 and 1965 resulted from the conviction among most southern whites that civil rights did not exist for blacks. Without civil rights, government could pass laws prohibiting blacks from holding certain kinds of jobs or requiring black and white schoolchildren to attend segregated schools, as many, mostly southern, states did before the Supreme Court prohibited segregated public schools in 1954. Without civil rights, government could not require that women be admitted to state-supported military academies, be allowed to practice the occupation of their choice, or even be allowed to hold checking accounts in their own name. Without civil rights, public buildings would not necessarily be accessible to the physically disabled, as the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires. Without civil rights, governments would be free to declare same-sex sodomy (but not opposite-sex sodomy) illegalas Texas and several other states did before the Supreme Court overturned such laws in 2003. Without civil rights, governments could pass restrictive immigration laws targeting people of certain national origins, denying them entry.

Guarantees of civil rights, then, protect people based on race and ethnicity, but also other factors, including nationality, gender, disability status, and sexual orientation. The presence of civil rights protects citizens against discrimination by their government, and often, by private action. The absence of civil rights opens the door to group-based domination, discrimination, and oppression, and would raise serious doubts about any societys claim of upholding liberty and justice for all.

SEE ALSO Black Power; Citizenship; Civil Disobedience; Civil Liberties; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Disability; Due Process; Equal Protection; Human Rights; Public Rights; Sexual Orientation, Social and Economic Consequences


Fiorina, Morris P., Paul E. Peterson, D. Stephen Voss, and Bertram Johnson. 2007. Americas New Democracy. 3rd ed., 2006 election update. New York: Pearson Longman.

United Nations. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1954. Brown v. Board of Education.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1978. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1995. Adarand Contractors v. Pena.

U.S. Supreme Court. 1996. United States v. Virginia.

U.S. Supreme Court. 2003. Lawrence et al. v. Texas.

Fred Slocum

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civil rights

civil rights, rights that a nation's inhabitants enjoy by law. The term is broader than "political rights," which refer only to rights devolving from the franchise and are held usually only by a citizen, and unlike "natural rights," civil rights have a legal as well as a philosophical basis. In the United States civil rights are usually thought of in terms of the specific rights guaranteed in the Constitution: freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, and the rights to due process of law and to equal protection under the law.

Civil Rights in the United States

Since the Civil War, much of the concern over civil rights in the United States has focused on efforts to extend these rights fully to African Americans. The first legislative attempts to assure African Americans an equal political and legal status were the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875. Those acts bestowed upon African Americans such freedoms as the right to sue and be sued, to give evidence, and to hold real and personal property. The 1866 act was of dubious constitutionality and was reenacted in 1870 only after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The fourth Civil Rights Act attempted to guarantee to the African Americans those social rights that were still withheld. It penalized innkeepers, proprietors of public establishments, and owners of public conveyances for discriminating against African Americans in accommodations, but was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1883 on the ground that these were not properly civil rights and hence not a field for federal legislation.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1875 there was no more federal legislation in this field until the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, although several states passed their own civil-rights laws. The 20th-century struggle to expand civil rights for African Americans involved the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and others. The civil-rights movement, led especially by Martin Luther King, Jr., in the late 1950s and 60s, and the executive leadership provided by President Lyndon B. Johnson, encouraged the passage of the most comprehensive civil-rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act of 1964; it prohibited discrimination for reason of color, race, religion, or national origin in places of public accommodation covered by interstate commerce, i.e., restaurants, hotels, motels, and theaters. Besides dealing with the desegregation of public schools, the act, in Title VII, forbade discrimination in employment. Title VII also prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, which placed federal observers at polls to ensure equal voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 dealt with housing and real estate discrimination. In addition to congressional action on civil rights, there was action by other branches of the government. The most notable of these were the Supreme Court decisions in 1954 and 1955 declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional and the court's rulings in 1955 banning segregation in publicly financed parks, playgrounds, and golf courses (see Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans.).

In the 1960s women began to organize around the issue of their civil rights (see feminism). The federal Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, and by the early 1970s over 40 states had passed equal pay laws. In 1972 the Senate passed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) intended to prohibit all discrimination based on sex, but after failing to win ratification in a sufficient number of states, the ERA was abandoned. Since the 1970s a number of gay-rights groups have worked, mainly on the local and state levels, for legislation that prevents discrimination in housing and employment (see gay-rights movement). In a further extension of civil-rights protection, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) barred discrimination against disabled persons in employment and provided for improved access to public facilities.


See W. E. Nelson, The Fourteenth Amendment (1988); R. Berger, The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights (1989); L. W. Levy, Civil Rights (1989); T. Branch, Pillar of Fire (1997); F. M. Wirt, We Ain't What We Was (1997); A. Fairclough, Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890–2000 (2001); D. McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution (2001); C. Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001); C. Carter et al., ed., Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973 (2 vol., 2003); J. Rosenberg and Z. Karabell, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: The Civil Rights Tapes (2003); J. Carrier, Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement (2004); N. Kotz, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America (2005); T. Branch, At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–68 (2006); L. F. Litwack, How Free Is Free? The Long Death of Jim Crow (2009); B. Ackerman, We the People, Vol. 3: The Civil Rights Revolution (2014); T. S. Purdum, An Idea Whose Time Has Come (2014); C. Risen, The Bill of the Century (2014).

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civil rights

civil rights Rights conferred legally upon the individual by the state. There is no universal conception of civil rights. The modern use of the phrase is most common in the USA, where it refers to relations between individuals as well as between individuals and the state. It is especially associated with the movement to achieve equal rights for African-Americans. Although that struggle dates back to the Civil War, the modern civil-rights movement may be said to have begun with the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. It gathered pace after the 1954 Supreme Court decision against segregation in schools (enforced by federal troops in Arkansas in 1957), and the foundation of organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Subsequently, a series of Civil Rights Acts protected individuals from discrimination.

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civil rights

civil rights Rights which are recognized as belonging to all individuals in a society, which can be upheld by appeal to the law, and are not subject to arbitrary denial either by individuals or the state. They are usually defended in terms of the protection of the individual from the state, and subject to clear limits, themselves identified in relation to the rights of others or else the common good.

Although the idea of rights being embodied for citizens in legal doctrines was hardly new, it took on a new meaning in the twentieth century, as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. The distinctively modern form of civil rights is often dated from the American Civil War, after slaves gained the right to be free. It is embodied in the Civil Rights Legislation of the late twentieth century—such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States. The history of this legislation is discussed in M. Berger , Equality by Statute (1978)

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Civil Rights Commission

Civil Rights Commission US federal commission that investigates complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote because of their race, colour, religion, sex or national origin, or, in the case of federal elections, by fraudulent practices. It appraises the laws and policies of the federal government and submits reports of its activities, findings and recommendations to the president and Congress.

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civil rights

civ·il rights • plural n. the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.

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Civil Rights



From Segregation to Civil Rights

Women's Rights

Native American Rights

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