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Civil Rights Overview

Protecting civil rights is an essential part of the democratic values of the United States. Civil rights protections are a collection of constitutional rights aimed at ensuring equal treatment and opportunities for all citizens. The historical context of the Civil War, racial segregation, and landmark cases like Plessy v. Ferguson underscores the evolution of civil rights in the United States.

The struggle for advancing civil rights continues to shape our nation's pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights. We'll explore the basics of civil rights in U.S. law.

What Are Civil Rights? 

Civil rights refer to the fundamental rights and freedoms granted to individuals by a government and are protected by law. Civil rights are an expansive and significant set of rights designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment. They are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment and to be free from unfair treatment or discrimination in several settings. Protected characteristics include:

  • Education
  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Public accommodations

Historically, the Civil Rights Movement referred to efforts toward achieving true equality for African Americans in all facets of society. Today the term civil rights is also used to describe the advancement of equality for all people regardless of

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • Age
  • Disability
  • National origin

In the United States, this has included not only the African American civil rights movement but also movements inspired by the civil rights movement, such as the American Indian Movement and the Chicano Movement.

Where Do Civil Rights Come From?

Most laws guaranteeing and regulating civil rights originate at the federal level through federal legislation, such as:

Age Discrimination Act of 1975 - Prohibits discrimination based on age in programs and activities that receive federal assistance, such as:

  • Educational programs
  • Health care services
  • Housing
  • Welfare
  • Food stamps
  • Rehabilitation programs

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) - Prohibits discrimination against job applicants and employees over age 40. It prohibits discrimination on compensation, advancement opportunities, and other employment conditions.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - Prohibits discrimination based on disability in:

  • Employment
  • State and local government
  • Public accommodations
  • Commercial facilities
  • Transportation
  • Telecommunications

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 - Legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, voting, and public accommodations on the basis of:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • National origin

Fair Housing Act (FHA) - Prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 - The first disability civil rights legislation passed in the United States prohibiting discrimination against disabled people in programs receiving federal financial assistance.

Voting Rights Act of 1965 - Enacted to address Jim Crow laws in the Deep South and other barriers minorities faced when trying to take part in elections. The Supreme Court removed critical provisions of the Act in 2013.

Civil rights also come from federal court decisions such as those handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

One of the most notable milestones in the struggle for civil rights was the desegregation of public schools and public facilities. The Court upheld racial segregation in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision. The Court's decision perpetuated discrimination and inequality.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified after the Civil War, became the foundation of civil rights protections. The Fourteenth Amendment established the principle of equal protection of the laws. It sought to ensure that no state could deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process. This amendment marked a step toward achieving equal rights for all citizens.

States also pass their own civil rights laws through the state constitution and other laws. The state laws can also be more protective of civil rights than their federal equivalents, including protections for people who identify as a part of the LGBTQ community.

Municipalities like cities and counties can also enact ordinances and laws related to civil rights.

Are Civil Liberties the Same as Civil Rights?

Civil rights are different from civil liberties. Traditionally, civil rights have revolved around the fundamental right to be free from unequal treatment based on specific protected characteristics (race, gender, disability). In contrast, civil liberties are more broad-based rights and freedoms guaranteed at the federal level by the Constitution and other federal laws such as fundamental rights, including:

  • The right to vote
  • Free speech
  • The right to privacy

As society evolves, the struggle for civil rights adapts to the changing landscape. The Department of Justice plays a critical role in upholding rights and liberties by investigating and addressing issues such as employment discrimination. The concept of equal employment opportunity prohibits bias based on factors such as:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Race
  • Gender

Voter rights are another crucial aspect of civil rights. Voter rights ensure that every eligible citizen can take part in the democratic process. Discriminatory practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter intimidation were used to disenfranchise minority voters. The Civil Rights Movement challenged these practices, which led to legislative changes that expanded access to the ballot box.

Questions About Your Civil Rights? 

If your civil rights have been violated in any way, you may have a valid legal claim for damages. Important decisions related to your case can be complicated, including which laws apply to your situation and who's responsible for any harm you suffered.

An experienced civil rights attorney can check all aspects of your case and explain the legal options available to you to ensure the best possible outcome for your case. Learn more about civil rights law on our civil rights attorney answers page.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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