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Where Do Civil Rights Come From?

Most laws prohibiting discrimination, and many legal definitions of "discriminatory" acts, originated at the federal level through either:

  • Federal legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Other federal acts (supplemented by court decisions) prohibit discrimination in voting rights, housing, extension of credit, public education, and access to public facilities.


  • Federal court decisions, such as the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which was the impetus for nationwide racial desegregation of public schools. Other Supreme Court cases have shaped the definition of civil rights violations like sexual harassment, and the legality of anti-discrimination remedies such as affirmative action programs.

Federal Legislation

The Civil Rights Act, a ground-breaking piece of legislation when it was enacted in 1964, established many civil rights in various aspects of life including: public accommodations and public facilities, education, voting, and employment. For instance, Title VII granted employees the right to a discrimination free workplace by prohibiting employers to discriminate on the basis of sex, color, race, religion, and national origin by employers.

Other examples of federal legislation that provide civil rights include the following:

  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) confers upon all citizens the full right to vote without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or language.
  • The Fair Housing Act (FHA) establishes fair housing rights to all Americans by banning discrimination in the sale and rental of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability.
  • Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gives persons with disabilities the right to equal access to services and benefits of businesses and buildings.
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act ensures that all consumers have an equal opportunity to obtain credit.

Federal Court Decisions

Civil rights also stem from federal court decisions especially U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Brown v. The Board of Education is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated state laws that established separate public schools for black and white students. Brown granted the right to have integrated public school by overturning Plessy v. Ferguson which had established the "separate but equal" doctrine.

State Legislation

Today, most states have civil rights laws of their own which mirror those at the federal level. For example, in the state of Texas, Title 2 Chapter 21 of the Labor Code prohibits employment discrimination. Many of the mandates in this Texas law are based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law making employment discrimination unlawful.

Municipalities within states (such as cities, counties, and towns) can create their own civil rights laws or ordinances, which may or may not resemble the laws of the state itself. For example, a city may pass legislation requiring domestic partner benefits for city employees and their same-sex partners, even though no such law exists at the state level.

Talk to a Civil Rights Attorney Today

It is helpful to know the origin of the civil rights laws that protect us from discrimination. It is even more helpful to know how to deal with the injustice of a civil rights violation. If you are facing housing discrimination, disability discrimination, or another civil rights violation, then you should talk to a civil rights attorney. An attorney can help you determine if you have a valid claim and can help you take the proper steps to address your legal issue.

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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Next Steps

Contact a qualified civil rights attorney to help you protect your rights.

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