The Civil Rights Acts passed by the U.S. Congress include those of 1866, 1870, 1871, 1875, 1964, 1968, and 1991. The first two acts gave African Americans the rights to be treated as citizens in legal actions, particularly to sue and be sued and to own property. These rights were also guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (1868) to the Constitution, which conferred citizenship on the former slaves, and the 15th Amendment (1870), which declared it illegal to deprive any citizen of the franchise because of race. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 made it a crime to deny any citizen equal protection under the law by means of "force, intimidation or threat." The act of 1875 further guaranteed blacks the right to use public accommodations, but this legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.

By the mid-1880s, the political climate was such that the U.S. public had become indifferent to issues of social justice. This shift in attitude was exemplified by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which upheld the principle of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites and legally instituted the system of segregation. The system endured until it was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), in which the Supreme Court declared that separate educational facilities were "inherently unequal."

Under intense public pressure brought about by massive demonstrations during the civil rights movement of 1957 to 1965, Congress enacted new legislation in an attempt to overcome local and state obstruction to the exercise of citizenship rights by blacks. These efforts culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This major piece of legislation also banned discrimination in public accommodations connected with interstate commerce. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 extended these guarantees to housing and real estate, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991 eased the burden on workers suing to prove job discrimination.


Civil Liberties under the Constitution, Bill of RightsThe Civil Rights Act of 1964: The Passage of the Law That Ended Racial SegregationEyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights YearsBibliography: (1986). (1983); Williams, Juan, (1997); Rotunda, R. D., (1984); Loevy, Robert D., ed., (1964); Kinoy, A., (1993); Hand, Learned, , rev. ed. (1985); Cathcart, D. A., et al., Abernathy, M. G., The Civil Rights Act of 1991Rights on TrialSix Justices on Civil Rights