Civil Rights

The term civil rights refers to the basic rights afforded, by laws of the government, to every person, regardless of race, nationality, color, gender, age, religion, or disability. This refers to such rights as equal citizenship, equal protection under the law, and due process. Civil rights differ subtly from civil liberties, in that they deal with rights granted by the government, rather than those rights endowed by birth.  To explore this concept, consider the following civil rights definition.

Definition of Civil Rights


  1. The rights to full legal, economic, and social equality, regardless of race, nationality, color, gender, age, religion, or disability.
  2. The non-political rights of a person, especially the personal liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.


1720-1725       Early American English

What are Civil Rights

Americans define civil rights by what they know about the founding of the nation, gleaning their understanding from words in the Declaration of Independence, which provides that, to secure man’s right to the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,

“governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Those unalienable rights, meaning those which cannot be dictated by government, but are rights as a matter of birth, are considered to be “civil liberties.” Civil rights, then are actions taken by government in an attempt to safeguard civil liberties. For instance, the freedom to express oneself, freedom to worship according to one’s own conscience, and the right to protect oneself are civil liberties – rights that are, or should be, held by every person.

The constitutional guarantees of these liberties, and attached prohibitions against government censoring or barring speech or other expression, creation of a government-sponsored religion, or banning of ownership of self-defense weapons, are “civil rights.”

Civil Rights and Oppression

Throughout history, class distinctions between people have seen the oppression of some peoples, while their oppressors stood on their backs to enjoy the society they had created. Such aristocracies have existed in civilizations since the dawn of time. From the earliest days when colonists came to America, something no European aristocrat would voluntarily do, white people sought to enslave blacks. This eventually turned into a lucrative trade in slaves brought to the country from a continent halfway around the world.

Even after the Founding Fathers went to great trouble to put language into the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution, declaring that “all men are created equal,” being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” that sentiment was conferred only on those people of fair skin.

Eventually, slaves became the primary work force in the United States, especially in farming and other types of hard physical labor. An eventual uprising gained sympathy among many Americans, and was the driving force of the Civil War, which raged for just over four years, from April 1861, through May 1865. This example of civil rights revolt was the first salvo in a civil rights movement that would stall for more than a century.

Civil Rights Act of 1866

At the end of the Civil War, a bill entitled “An Act to protect all persons in the United States in their civil rights, and furnish the means of their vindication,” was passed by both houses of Congress and presented to President Andrew Johnson for signature. Although the act boasted that it granted citizenship, and the same rights enjoyed by white citizens, to all male persons in the United States, “without distinction of race or color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude,” the President vetoed the bill.

In his letter to Congress regarding his veto, President Johnson told Congress that the document contained provisions that were not consistent with his sense of duty to all American people. For instance, the bill declared all those born in the United States, not subject to any other nation’s government, to be U.S. citizens. He pointed out that those people were, according to the Constitution, already citizens, and enacting another law granting them this status was not necessary.

Additionally, while the bill recognized the Chinese people of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the “Gipsies,” and the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood as citizens, it did not confer upon any of them any actual rights of citizenship. There were many other problems with the bill, as it attempted to skirt around the absolute right of the states to govern their own people, creating law that would seem to punish legislators or prosecutors should they create legislation, or impose punishment on a black person that would not be imposed on a white person.

It seems the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was viewed by the radicals as a first step toward fundamental change, and by the moderates as an overture toward readmission of the southern states to Congressional representation. Continuing complaints of persecution of blacks in the South, combined with the hodge-podge, and contradictory, provisions of the bill, solidified Johnson’s belief that the bill in its original state could only cause trouble for the American people. In this example of civil rights pursuit, Congress overturned President John’s veto of the bill by a two-thirds majority vote, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 became law.

The Civil Rights Movement

The rights of black people in the United States, in spite of the abolition of outright slavery, remained severely restricted, though progress inched along over the 100 years following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. However, Black Americans still experienced segregation in all areas of their lives, including being relegated to separate areas in public restrooms, waiting rooms, lunch counters and restaurants, hotels, nursing homes, hospitals, libraries, movie theaters, and public transportation. Black children were required to attend separate schools, and black people could only obtain employment in certain types of jobs. Signs posted in some recreational areas even stated “Negroes and Dogs Not Allowed.”

Black people were denied the right to vote, and intimidation by whites, especially in the southern states, was rampant, as acts of violence, including lynching, was an ever-present threat. In states outside the South, black people had certain legal rights, but in reality, they still suffered from widespread discrimination in where they could live, where their children could attend school, and which jobs they might be hired for.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The states, however, balked, arguing that the federal government had no right to interfere in how they managed their systems of public education. Civil rights protests only increased. Martin Luther King Jr. led a boycott to end segregation in public transportation in Alabama, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in National Guard troops to enforce the desegregation of an Arkansas high school, and four black college students refused to leave Woolworth’s lunch counter when they were denied service.

The civil rights movement gained full swing in the early 1960s, as it worked towards something that Black Americans had never known: full legal equality. In fact, the Woolworth incident led to sit-ins and other protests at college campuses across the nation, with around 50,000 young adults joining in.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil rights and equality became a central issue during the 1960 presidential election. Following his election, however, President John F. Kennedy was mired by Cold War issues, making him slow to take on the cause of equal rights for Black Americans. In June, 1963, the President proposed a comprehensive civil rights bill, though it had to make it through a number of obstacles in Congress.

Although President Kennedy gained the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his family, he did not see its approval before his death on November 22, 1963. President Lyndon B. Johnson, once the mantle of President fell upon him, used his connections with southern white congressional leaders, as well as the deluge of public sympathy following Kennedy’s assassination, to get the bill passed.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation in public places, and in public programs, illegal. It also banned discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is still considered the crowning achievement of the American civil rights movement, though the work was not done. Congress expanded legislation guaranteeing equality in civil rights in subsequent years.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

Congress passed a law in 1867 requiring former Confederate states to include suffrage to black male adults and, while those states complied, the northern states were slower to allow black males this basic civil right.

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1870, ensures that all Americans have the right to vote, stating:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Congress furthered the civil rights cause by enacting the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nearly 100 years later, the Act was signed by President Johnson, removing barriers at the state and local levels to Black Americans’ right to vote. Among other provisions, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests and other types of discrimination at the polls.

This was by no means the final example of the civil rights quest, as the Civil Rights Act later brought equal rights to women in collegiate athletics, disabled Americans, and the elderly, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of homes and real property.

Civil Rights Example in Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action in the United States was a legislative attempt to ensure that members of minority groups had equal opportunities in employment, and later in education. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, its goal was to prohibit employment discrimination, based on “race, creed, color or national origin,” in government agencies. This extended, then, to any employers who were working on a project contracted by the U.S. government.

The idea behind affirmative action was to level the playing field in employment by making sure everyone has an equal opportunity to receive an education, and an equal opportunity to prove oneself in employment. It was believed that, in such a circumstance, people in groups commonly discriminated against, including Black Americans, women, people with disabilities, and people of minority nationalities, would be fairly represented in America’s workforce.

By the 1970s, many white Americans began complaining that they were being passed over for employment and educational opportunities in favor of people with fewer qualifications, as required by Affirmative Action. Allan Bakke attended the University of Minnesota with his tuition paid on a promise to serve his country by joining the Marine Corps. After receiving his degree, he served four years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam as a commanding officer. Bakke was discharged in 1967, with a rank of captain. He then went to work for NASA as an engineer, but decided to attend medical school so that he could work on the issues of the human body in space.

In 1972, Bakke applied to 12 medical schools, and was denied admittance to all of them, based on his age (he was 33). In 1973, Bakke applied to UC Davis medical school, with a score of 468 points out of 500 on the admissions scale, and a GPA of 3.46. The university, however, adhered to a special admissions program, reserving spaces for “disadvantaged” applicants. Although Bakke also scored extremely well on his admissions interview, being highly recommended for admission, Allan Bakke was sent a rejection notice. All of the spaces had been filled, many by minority applicants who had scored much lower than Bakke.

Bakke Civil Lawsuit

Bakke filed a civil lawsuit against the university, claiming that the special admissions program violated his civil right to not be discriminated against on the basis of his age or race. Although the trial court ruled that the program was indeed unconstitutional, stating “no race or ethnic group should ever be granted privileges or immunities not given to every other race,” the university refused to admit Bakke, and both parties appealed. This very important case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in December 1976.

This case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, split the High Court, as five Justices voted to strike down the university’s minority admissions program, ordering that Bakke be admitted. The remaining four Justices disagreed with that portion of the decision, but agreed Affirmative Action was permissible in some circumstances.

In this civil rights example of reverse discrimination, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote, “the guarantee of Equal Protection cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color.” The Court ruled that schools could still consider race as a factor in the admissions process, but only if it was one of many admission factors.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Executive Order – A legally binding order given by the President to direct a federal administrative agency to take a certain action.
  • Minority – A group of people who are different from the larger group in a nation.
  • Segregation – The practice of restricting certain people to certain constrained areas of residence, or to separate institutions.
  • Suffrage – The right to vote.

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