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Criminal Civil Rights Enforcement and Hate Crimes: History and the Law

Federal criminal civil rights laws prohibit certain hate crimes based on race, color, or national origin; prohibit police brutality, the burning of churches, violence against health care providers, and the transport of persons (particularly women and children) for the purpose of enslavement or forced labor. The following provides historical context to the federal enforcement of civil rights and hate crimes laws.

Lynching and Church Burning in Mississippi 

In June, 1964, three young men -- Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner -- were working in Mississippi to help African Americans obtain their civil rights in voting, education and employment. On June 21, 1964, the young men visited a church that had been fire bombed near Philadelphia, Mississippi. After leaving the site of the church bombing, the young men were arrested by members of the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department for speeding. Later that night, they disappeared.

Within a few days of the disappearance, the FBI began an investigation, and members of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division visited Mississippi to learn what facts were available about their disappearance. On August 4, 1964, a paid informant of the FBI revealed the location of the bodies of the three young civil rights workers. They had been shot, and James Chaney, an African American, had been severely beaten. In December, 1964, 19 white men, including the sheriff and his deputy, were arrested on state conspiracy charges, but the charges were later dropped. In 1967, after a federal prosecution for conspiracy to deny the young men's civil rights, seven white men were convicted.

Police Beating of Rodney King

A case in March 1991 involved the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, California,. After the police officers who allegedly beat Mr. King were acquitted in a state court trial, terrible riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles in protest. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney then prosecuted the officers under a federal criminal civil rights statute. The officers were convicted of violating Mr. King's civil rights.

DOJ Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division also enforces federal criminal civil rights laws that involve "hate crimes." Hate crimes are crimes committed against individuals or institutions because of their race, ethnic background, or religion. Other federal laws prohibit church burnings.

In 1996, a string of church arsons, especially in a large number of African-American churches, led President Bill Clinton to form a special task force, known as the National Church Arson Task Force, made up of lawyers from the Civil Rights Division, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This Task Force was assigned to investigate and prosecute these church arsons under the federal criminal civil rights statutes.

In their report to the President in June 1997, the Task Force reported convictions of 110 individuals in connection with 77 fires at houses of worship. The President also sought and worked with Congress to improve the law that prohibits church arsons.

Sadly, hate crimes and other racially fueled acts continue to make headlines in the United States as of 2017. Contact the DOJ to file a complaint and report a possible hate crime.

Have You Witnessed a Hate Crime? Contact a Local Civil Rights Attorney

Whether you have witnessed a hate crime or are the victim of such an offense, you should know that state and federal laws can help you get the justice you deserve. While there may be civil remedies for certain discriminatory acts, hate crimes are taken much more seriously and should be investigated promptly. Consider speaking with a local civil rights attorney to learn more.

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