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Civil Rights History, Laws, and Resources

Civil rights laws encompass a crucial aspect of the U.S. Constitution, ensuring the protection of individual rights. Civil rights laws protect your rights and liberties from discrimination based on:

  • Color
  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Disability
  • Age
  • Gender

Federal, state, and local laws address discrimination and civil rights violations within different areas of life, such as education or employment. Civil rights laws safeguard constitutional rights and growing issues like:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Human trafficking
  • Hate crimes
  • Immigration status
  • Human rights issues

FindLaw's Civil Rights Laws and Resources section contains:

  • A list of federal laws addressing civil rights
  • A directory of civil rights enforcement offices
  • Links to related resources

Federal Civil Rights Laws at a Glance

There are many federal laws addressing civil rights and banning discrimination. The most prominent of these is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We summarize sections of the act below (as well as other federal laws). This is a partial list of civil rights and discrimination laws.

  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975 — Bans age discrimination in all programs or activities that receive public funds.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act — Requires employers, educational institutions, public accommodations, and certain private entities (such as restaurants) to provide access to disabled people.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII — Prohibits discrimination in the area of employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991 — Strengthens the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provides for damages in intentional employment discrimination cases, among other provisions.
  • Equal Credit Opportunity Act — Prohibits lenders from discriminating against creditors on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or public assistance status.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act — Makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against female workers for pregnancy or potential pregnancy.

State Civil Rights Protections

Many states offer extra civil rights and anti-discrimination protections above what federal laws provide. For example, employees have federal protection from discrimination based on:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Age
  • Disability

States must adopt the protections established at the federal level. But, states can create more protections that go above and beyond federal ones. For example, Oregon also bans discrimination on the basis of one's:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Marital status
  • Family relationship
  • Association with a member of a protected class

New York law also protects people for their gender identity (transgender people), military status, and source of income.

Select a link below to learn more about the civil rights laws and protections in your state and nationwide or to file a claim.

Historical Context of Civil Rights Laws in the U.S.

As America became more diverse, welcoming immigrants from around the globe, problems of racial discrimination endured for many minority groups. Women and people with disabilities fought for and passed laws that provided fairness and equality.

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which became law in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. The 14th Amendment became law in 1868 and made formerly enslaved people, and any others born in the U.S. or naturalized, citizens. It also required that all citizens have equal protection of the law. The 15th Amendment became law in 1879 and made it illegal to deny any citizen the right to vote because of their race or color or because they were formerly enslaved.

Despite the promises of these new laws, the formerly enslaved and their descendants, along with other racial and ethnic minorities, did not get 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.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the civil rights movement changed the law significantly. Many of these laws still exist and protect people from discrimination based not only on their race but other characteristics.

Public Accommodations and Facilities

In the 1960s, people protested public accommodation discrimination. On Feb. 1, 1960, a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, denied counter service to African American students. The restaurant's 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" began. Across the South, peaceful student sit-ins took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. The protesters suffered beatings and were sometimes sent to jail. But they continued to sit in until they achieved their goal: desegregation of places of public accommodation.

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 include:

  • Hotels
  • Motels
  • Restaurants
  • Movie theaters
  • Stadiums
  • Concert halls

Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has the same anti-discrimination provision as Title II. It pertains to public facilities owned, operated, or managed by state or local governments, like courthouses or jails.


In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in public schools violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But, implementation of the Court's decision went slowly, with massive state resistance. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools.

Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine Black children from attending Central High School. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. They blocked them from attending school. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower made the National Guard protect the children.

In September 1958, 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 IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It applies to elementary schools, secondary schools, and public colleges and universities.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is a government agency that enforces equal employment opportunity laws. The EEOC has a complaint process that allows complainants to file workplace discrimination reports and seek civil actions if needed.

Voting Rights

In 1963, civil rights activists began an effort to register black voters in Dallas County, Alabama. In January and February 1965, protesters demonstrated in Selma to bring attention to this violation of rights. The protesters suffered violence from Sheriff James Clark and his deputies.

On Feb. 17, 1965, 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 held a memorial march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery in March. 7.

On "Bloody Sunday," law enforcement officials ambushed peaceful protestors, resulting in chaos and violence. Another march on the steps of the state capitol ended in tragedy. Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, a white 39-year-old civil rights volunteer from Detroit, Michigan. She had come to support the Black protestors.

In August 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting practices or procedures because of race and color. In 1957 and 1960, Congress enacted voting rights laws that took small steps toward increasing minority voting participation for all Americans. The 1965 act made huge strides toward making voting rights a reality.

The act prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes, which prevented Black citizens from voting. In 1975, Congress recognized the need to protect citizens who did not read or speak English well enough to take part in the political process. It expanded the protections of the Voting Rights Act to them.


In the summer of 1965, a riot erupted in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles over accusations of police brutality against a Black motorist. Similar riots and unrest broke out in cities throughout the United States during the next four summers. The quest for civil rights had moved out of the South and spread to the rest of the country.

A report from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1959 said Chicago was "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. Protestors began marches into white-only areas of Chicago and suffered violence from white residents. The attacks continued into July. At the end of August, city leaders met with Dr. Martin Luther King and agreed to a fair housing program.

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.

The Fair Housing Act became law in 1968. In 1988, Congress enacted amendments to the Fair Housing Act. They gave the departments of Justice (DOJ) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) significant roles in enforcing the law. The DOJ litigates fair housing cases in court. HUD investigates and attempts to resolve complaints of housing discrimination.

Rights of Institutionalized Persons

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

Americans with Disabilities

About 43 million Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities. This number is increasing as the population as a whole is growing older. People with disabilities continually encounter discrimination. This includes intentional exclusion and access to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.

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

Native Americans

The Constitution refers to Native tribes when it states, "Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes."

Hundreds of Native American tribes have tribal governments recognized by the United States. There are also about 300 federal Indian reservations in the United States. On a reservation, the tribal government performs many of the same functions as state governments. Reservations are usually lands the tribes kept when they entered into treaties with the federal government.

All the civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination because of race, color, or national origin also protect Native Americans.

Japanese American Interment

On Dec. 7, 1941, the country of Japan bombed the United States military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Soon after, the United States entered World War II. As a result of the war with Japan, many people in the U.S. did not trust people of Japanese ancestry. There was no proof that Japanese Americans were disloyal to America. The federal government and its military leaders decided that no one of Japanese ancestry could live on the West Coast of the United States. In contrast, people of Italian and German ancestry could remain. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which began this prohibition.

In 1980, Congress passed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. 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 Aug. 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Congress passed the act to provide a presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000 to the internees, evacuees, and people of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property because of discriminatory action by the federal government. 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 Claim

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

Learn About Civil Rights Laws and Resources

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