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Civil Rights: Law and History

The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, stated "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal..." Yet the new nation declaring its independence permitted the continuation of the practice of slavery for people of African heritage, a practice that continued until the Civil War in the 1860s. At the conclusion of the Civil War, much remained to be done to ensure the rights and privileges of citizenship to all Americans. As America became a more diverse nation, welcoming immigrants from around the globe, problems of racial discrimination endured for many minority group members. Women and persons with disabilities also fought for and obtained laws that provided for fairness and equality.

Background and Introduction

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves held in the states still fighting in the Civil War. After the War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, made the former slaves, and any other person born in the U.S. or naturalized, a citizen and required that all citizens be granted equal protection of the law. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1879, made it against the law to deny any citizen the right to vote because of his or her race or color or because he or she was formerly a slave.

Despite the promises of these new laws, the former slaves and their descendants, along with other racial and ethnic minorities, did not receive equal treatment under the law. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state governments could separate people of different races as long as the separate facilities were equal. This "separate but equal" doctrine lasted until 1954.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a segregated public bus to a white man even though it was legally mandated. Ms. Parks was arrested for refusing to move. This was the catalyst for a boycott of the public buses led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The peaceful boycott continued for 381 days during which time 90 percent of the African Americans in Montgomery refused to ride the buses, culminating in the desegregation of the bus system, and resulting in further boycotts and protests for other civil rights issues and Rosa Parks is considered to be the "mother" of the civil rights movement.

Public Accommodations and Facilities

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Places of public accommodation are: hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls. Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has the same anti-discrimination provision as Title II, but pertains to public facilties, owned, operated or managed by state or local governments, like courthouses or jails. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, persons from minority groups were excluded from, or segregated in, restaurants, motels, theaters, and other places of public accommodations and public facilities.

In the 1960s people protested public accommodation discrimination. On February 1, 1960, African American students were denied counter service at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina because the policy was that only white customers could sit at the counter; African Americans had to stand. The next day they returned with more students and the peaceful protest called a "sit-in" was begun. Across the South, peaceful sit-ins by students took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. Although the protesters were beaten, and sometimes sent to jail, they continued to peacefully sit-in until they achieved their goals -- desegregation of places of public accommodation.


Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public schools (including elementary schools, secondary schools and public colleges and universities) because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, implementation of the Court's decision went slowly, with massive resistance from the states. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the nine black children who were enrolled in Central High School from attending. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school, preventing them from attending the school, until President Eisenhower made the National Guard protect the children.

In September 1958, Governor Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock to prevent any more black children from attending white schools. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of a person's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

In 1962, Cesar Chavez set out to organize migrant farm workers in the California grape fields into a union. The farm workers were mostly Hispanic (although there were other ethnic groups represented like Filipinos) and had an average family income of about $2,000 per year. In 1965, the farm workers went on strike in a movement known as La Causa. In 1966, Mr. Chavez led a 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to bring attention to the farm workers' conditions. The nonviolent strike lasted three years.

Voting Rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting practices or procedures because of race and color. In 1957 and 1960, Congress had enacted voting rights laws that took small steps toward increasing minority voting participation for all Americans. The 1965 Act, however, made huge strides towards making voting rights a reality. The Act prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes which had been used to prevent blacks from voting. In 1975, Congress recognized the need to protect citizens who did not read or speak English well enough to participate in the political process and expanded the protections of the Voting Rights Act to them.

In 1963, civil rights activists began an effort to register black voters in Dallas County, Alabama. In January and February 1965, protests were held in Selma to bring attention to this violation of rights. The protests were met by violence by Sheriff James Clark and his deputies. On February 17, a small civil rights march ended in the shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson who died from his wounds several days later. The civil rights activists decided to hold a memorial march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on March. 7. In a day known as "Bloody Sunday", peaceful protestors were ambushed by law enforcement officials resulting in chaos and violence. Another march, held on the steps of the state capitol, ended in tragedy when Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, a white 39-year-old civil rights volunteer from Detroit, Michigan, who had come to support the Alabama African Americans. In August, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.


The Fair Housing Act, contained in Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, financing or rental of housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

Shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, in the summer of 1965, a riot erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles over accusations of police brutality against a black motorist. During the next four summers, similar riots and unrest broke out in cities throughout the United States. The quest for civil rights had moved out of the South and spread to the rest of the country.

In a report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1959, Chicago was called "the most residentially segregated large city in the nation." Soon, the attention of all the civil rights activists in Chicago turned to the issue of fair housing. The civil rights movement began marchs into white-only areas of Chicago only to be met by mobs of whites. The attacks continued into the month of July. Finally, at the end of August, city leaders met with Dr. King and agreed to a program of fair housing.

The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. In 1988, Congress enacted amendments to the Fair Housing Act that gave the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a large role in enforcing the law; the DOJ litigates fair housing cases in court, while HUD investigates and attempts to resolve complaints of housing discrimination.

Rights of Institutionalized Persons

The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 ensures that the rights of persons in institutions are protected against unconstitutional conditions. Those confined in government institutions include persons with disabilities, the elderly in government-run nursing homes, and prisoners.

In March of 1972, a group of parents, volunteer organizations, and individual residents at the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded filed a federal lawsuit against the State of New York and the administrators of the school to correct conditions at the school. Conditions for the residents at Willowbrook were hazardous to the health, safety and sanity of the residents: The residences were dirty, people didn't have clean clothes to wear, the plumbing didn't work, and there were not enough doctors and nurses to take care of them. The Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of mental Hygiene in charge of Willowbrook described the institution as a "major tragedy." The Civil Rights Division intervened in the lawsuit as amicus curiae ("friend of the court") to help the parents and others prove that the rights of the residents were being violated. After three years of court actions, all the parties to the lawsuit agreed on a settlement to correct the conditions at Willowbrook.

Americans with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment, in places of public accommodation, including all hotels, restaurants, retail stores, theaters, health care facilities, convention centers, parks, and places of recreation, in transportation services, and in all activities of state and local governments because a person has a disability.

Approximately 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities, and this number is increasing as the population as a whole is growing older. Individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion and access to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.

For example, a nine-year-old girl who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair wanted to participate in a Sears, Roebuck and Co. modeling program for children. According to the girl's mother, the Model's Club Program instructor said that the girl could not participate in the program because they used a ramp for the models that was one foot off the ground and that the girl would be out of place with the other children. The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division investigated the complaint and entered into a settlement agreement with Sears to ensure that this girl, and any other child with a disability, would be able to attend the modeling program.

American Indians

The Constitution specifically refers to Indian tribes when it states that "Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes." There are hundreds of American Indian tribes that have tribal governments that are recognized by the United States in a government to government relationship. There are also approximately 300 federal Indian reservations in the United States. On an Indian reservation the tribal government performs many of the same functions that State governments do. Indian reservations are usually lands that the tribes kept when they entered into treaties with the federal government.

American Indians are a racial group who sometimes face discrimination the same as African Americans do. In fact, before the civil rights laws were enacted, in some states you could find three separate drinking fountains labeled "whites," "Colored" and "Indian." There were also three sections in some movie theaters. All of the civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination because of race or color or national origin also protect American Indians.

The DOJ sued a school district in Utah for not having a high school in the remote community of Navajo Mountain. The Navajo and Paiute high school age students who live in this community all had to go more than 90 miles from home and live in dormitories or with relatives and attend boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school district had built high schools in the communities where non-Indians lived. The school district argued that because the Indians live on a reservation they didn't have a right to a public school built and operated by the district.

The court ruled that even though they live on an Indian reservation, American Indians have a right to receive all of the same services that state and county governments offer to all other citizens of the state. The settlement of this lawsuit required the school district to build a new high school in this community. This lawsuit was the first time the Civil Rights Division had ever enforced the education statutes on behalf of American Indians; the lawsuit was originally filed by Indian students and their parents, but both the Navajo Nation and the United States joined in the lawsuit to support the students and their parents.

Japanese American Interment

On December 7, 1941, the country of Japan bombed the United States military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As a result, the United States entered World War II against Japan, Germany, and Italy. As a result of the war with Japan, many people in the U.S. did not trust people of Japanese ancestry although there was no proof that Japanese-Americans were disloyal to America. However, the federal government and its military leaders decided that no one of Japanese ancestry could live on the west coast of the United States, while people of Italian and German ancestry could remain. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which began this prohibition.

Over 120,000 people, including children and the elderly, were required to leave their homes in California and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona. Some people moved to other states, but the majority went to internment camps. They were only allowed to take few belongings with them, and many families lost virtually everything they owned except what they could carry. Internees spent many years in camp, behind barbed wire fences and with armed guards patrolling the camps.

In 1980, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established by Congress. This commission reviewed the impact of Executive Order 9066 on Japanese-Americans and determined that they were the victims of discrimination by the Federal government.

On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act was passed by Congress to provide a Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000.00 to the internees, evacuees, and persons of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property because of discriminatory action by the Federal government during World War II. The Act also created the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to help teach children and the public about the internment period.

Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney About Your Potential Claim

Civil rights are fundamental to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If you suspect that your civil rights have been violated, then the first contact should be an experienced civil rights attorney. See FindLaw's lawyer directory for a civil rights attorney in your area.

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