Civil Rights

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Civil rights are those personal and property rights recognized by governments and guaranteed by constitutions and laws. Although these rights were once conceived of as civil liberties, as limits placed on the government on behalf of individual liberty, government is no longer the sole concern of civil rights policy.

Recent legislation and court decisions have extended the zone of civil rights to include protection from arbitrary or discriminatory treatment by groups or individuals. Thus, in the broad sense, civil rights includes both rights against government and rights against individuals and groups.

Rights are difficult to define. The Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution states certain basic rights, but ambiguity shrouds the meaning of almost every important phrase. In practice, rights are what courts, legislators, presidents, and governors say they are.

The meaning of civil rights has changed greatly over the years. The original concept was rooted in 18th-century politics and philosophy. The decay of absolute monarchy led to efforts to check and limit royal power. In England the political philosopher John Locke gave shape to the new concept of individual natural rights against the state. Locke also believed that natural rights should be guaranteed against incursions by other persons as well as by the state.

In France, at the beginning of the French Revolution, the new Constituent Assembly issued its Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It stated that "men are born and remain free and equal in rights" and that the "aim of all political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man," including "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." Much of the Declaration was derived from the writings of Diderot, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire.

In America, Thomas Jefferson expanded the English and American views of civil rights. He emphasized the primacy of human happiness, by which he meant the opportunity of autonomous individuals to develop themselves to the fullest. He also advanced the concept of religious freedom and church-state separation as a key element of civil rights. Jefferson's thinking was embodied in the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Religious Liberty (1785) of the state of Virginia.

U.S. Constitutional Amendments
The Bill of Rights, as the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called, was largely the brainchild of James Madison. The amendments restricted the power of the new national government (but not of the states) in the name of freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition. In addition, citizens were assured against unreasonable or unwarranted intrusions by government officials into their homes or personal papers. Certain protections in criminal procedure were established, including the rights to a speedy trial, to a federal grand jury, to reasonable bail, and to confront one's accusers, as well as the right not to be placed twice in jeopardy of life or limb. None of these rights was absolute. Indeed, government restraints on the press and on speech were already well established.

The end of slavery marked a new chapter in the development of civil rights in the United States. After the Civil War a number of constitutional amendments were proposed. Eventually, three were ratified by the states; these were designed primarily to protect the newly freed blacks and, less directly, other victims of discrimination. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (including peonage). The 14th Amendment extended American citizenship to all those persons born or naturalized in the United States. It contained far-reaching provisions forbidding any state to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" or to deny any person "equal protection of the laws." The 15th Amendment extended the right of suffrage to blacks. The phrase "equal protection of the laws" became crucial in the 20th-century struggle against discrimination. Although the Supreme Court was slow to address the concept, it stands today as the major constitutional means for combating sex and race discrimination in America. In its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), the Court declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional because separate facilities were inherently unequal.

Recent U.S. Civil Rights Laws
Rights have also been expanded through legislation. Since 1957, federal Civil Rights Acts and a Voting Rights Act have been passed in an effort to guarantee voting rights, access to housing, and equal opportunity in employment. These have been accompanied by much state and local civil rights legislation.

Civil Rights Movements
Throughout recent history, people have organized to struggle for rights to which they felt entitled either by law or by a sense of justice. In the United States the civil rights movement gathered strength in the 1950s and '60s through the activities of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. These groups achieved major successes in arousing national opinion against segregation in the South and in stimulating the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. They failed, however, to eliminate some of the deep-rooted segregation patterns in urban areas of the country.

The successes of black civil rights movment encouraged women activists. While the struggle for suffrage had achieved voting rights for U.S. women under the 19th Amendment in 1920 (see suffrage, women's), women now sought equal treatment in other social relationships such as employment and property rights.

A similar movement gained momentum among U.S. homosexuals that aimed at winning legal safeguards against discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Beginning in the 1970s, local governments increasingly enacted civil-rights protection for homosexuals, although the spread of AIDS in the 1980s and '90s hampered antidiscrimination efforts.

Civil Rights outside the United States
Civil rights have been given broad recognition in many countries, particularly in Great Britain, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. In many other countries, however, civil rights are empty phrases in constitutions and other documents, and they are not recognized in practice. Nevertheless, even such lip service is a testimony to the growing consciousness of rights everywhere. The United Nations General Assembly gave expression to this consciousness in creating (1947) the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and a number of subsequent standard-setting covenants.

  • Subjects:
    Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Constitution and Bill of Rights, Civil Rights Movement
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