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date: 24 February 2021

Civil Rightsfree

  • William L. PollardWilliam L. PollardNational Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), New York


Civil rights are rooted in the English laws that tried to protect citizens from abuses by the state. As the United States matured as a democracy, so did its citizens. Since World War II, there has been a virtual explosion in the awareness of citizens to the diverse needs and rights of individuals that require protection. Citizen awareness and actions have truly moved the civil rights struggle beyond a focus on color. Greater attention is being paid to fundamental protection and expanded understanding of human rights and responsibilities.

Civil rights protect the individual from arbitrary abuses by the state or other people. Basic rights of citizens are identified in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States. During the past 200 years, the passage of several amendments has enabled a greater number of individuals previously not considered to be full members of the society to share in the advantages of citizenship, a privilege previously reserved for White men. The history of the United States and the subsequent expansion of civil rights reflect a number of efforts to extend civil liberties to several oppressed groups: women, African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, other people of color, gay men, lesbians, people with disabilities, unborn children, and others.

Civil rights are intended to act as a protection to ensure that people—regardless of race, creed, color, physical limitations, or gender or other characteristics—are treated fairly and are not discriminated against. In addition, civil rights have also protected individuals from artificially established forms of discrimination that prevent access to opportunities to meet the basic needs and privileges offered to others in society


The story of civil rights in the United States reflects forces that have given impetus to changes attempting to ensure that all people are treated fairly in their normal intercourse with other citizens and with the government. The early history of the United States is marked by several notable examples of resistance to infringement on the rights of the individual. Mayflower passengers and later the victims of the Bunker Hill massacre were among the earliest advocates of civil rights. Eventually, the American War of Independence led to the establishment of strong principles, which were to provide a springboard for the attainment of civil rights for classes of citizens who had been ignored by the founders, who enslaved people; denied women rights; and advocated the killing of American Indian men, women, and children.

Origins in English Laws

The concept of civil rights in the United States has its origins in English laws that concern the protection of the individual from abuses by the state. These laws have given the United States a background and tradition that have emphasized protecting the rights of the individual from the actions of any force attempting to discriminate against or oppress citizens. The idea of individual rights helped to force the development of the Magna Carta of England under King John in 1215 (Burns, Ralph, Lerner, & Meacham, 1986), under its provisions,

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or diseased (dispossessed) or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land… . To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay rights or justice

The Magna Carta determined that no individual could be imprisoned or have property taken without legal sanction.

In 1689 the English Parliament adopted the Declaration of Rights and Liberties, which extended rights to protect the individual. The act prohibited excessive fines and cruel or unusual punishment, guaranteed the right to a jury trial with impartial jurors, prohibited fines or forfeiture of liberties unless an individual was convicted, guaranteed rights to petition the king and speak freely, and denied the king the right to suspend or levy taxes without approval of Parliament. In 1694 these rights were extended to subjects in British colonies.

The principles enunciated in the Magna Carta provided the foundation of the legal system that currently operates in the United States and in England, and they provided the foundation on which U.S. civil rights are founded. The English people who founded the original 13 colonies did so as an act of protest against the capricious behavior of the king of England, but they did not fare so well as colonists either. Not only were the colonists taxed without representation, but also limits were placed on their right to free speech, their right to bear arms, and their right to elect people of their choice to represent them. These conditions led to the fight for independence. But the principles were so powerful that they have been adopted by the men and women enslaved by the colonists and generations of their descendants, who even today resist efforts to limit individual freedom.

Civil Rights in the United States

Civil rights laws in the United States have been created and revised as a means of protecting citizens from the abuses of the government and people who regard themselves as superior because of their race, gender, class, or other ascribed indicator of privilege. Civil rights are expected to protect citizens from biased treatment under the law, regardless of race, gender, age, national origin, or religion. It is generally agreed that basic civil rights include voting, equal employment opportunities, equal education, and equal treatment in the acquisition of housing and the use of public accommodations. Although these principles seem rather simple on the surface, they have been difficult to implement. During the past 200 years, the history of the United States has been dominated by the civil rights issues shaping the thinking and behavior of citizens. Following the American Revolution, a young United States was forced to make major decisions about who were citizens and what protections and privileges they should have. These civil rights have continued to be at the forefront of American political thought, encompassing not only race and gender but also sexual orientation, physical conditions, language, and other concerns.

Liberty and Equality

Principles of liberty and equality were among the many revolutionary ideals that shaped the philosophy of the early Americans and their struggle for independence. These same ideals were later to revisit the founders as they grappled with the question of slavery and later generations as they grappled with the question of the rights of women.

Before the Revolutionary War could be concluded, leaders had to make decisions about slavery. The men who signed the Declaration of Independence and framed the Constitution were forced to confront the contradictions imposed by owning slaves at the same time they espoused language and values in support of freedom, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness. Eventually the men who had the greatest influence were those who convinced others that slavery was necessary. This decision meant that freedom and rights enjoyed by White men were not to be extended to the enslaved men, women, and children of African descent. These sentiments were to guide the laws and practices of the United States until well into the 20th century. Racist, sexist, and homophobic policies and practices were the result of this legacy of the subordination of others until abolitionists defended the civil rights issues in the 19th century and advocates of women's rights did so in the dawn of the 20th century.

Fundamental Human Rights

The individual's claim to privacy and the right to bear arms were also protected by civil rights enunciated in the Constitution. Constitutional rights also ensure the individual's authority to vote and to have access to public accommodation. For many groups the civil rights struggle has emerged more as a conflict over fundamental human rights, rather than the legal authority granted to all citizens. Such was the case of African Americans, who were victimized by their enslavement before the Emancipation Proclamation and the Jim Crow era that defined Black and White relations following Reconstruction and beyond. The idea of the civil rights struggle being a fight for human rights seems true also for American Indians, who were victimized by genocide efforts before, during, and after the American War of Independence. The massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee (Brown, 1971) indicate the atrocities that the native people had to face in a nation that has since become an advocate of human rights throughout the world. Further, the idea of a struggle for human rights is reflected in the ongoing efforts of women to be recognized as people who should be judged by their character and productivity, rather than by their gender. This concept is also shared by proponents of the civil rights of gay men and lesbians, as well as people with disabilities.

18th and 19th Centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, civil rights were privileges accorded only to White men. During these years, some of the most infamous atrocities in the history of the United States occurred. People of color throughout the United States experienced all kinds of abuse. In addition to the violence and physical abuse suffered by African Americans, Native Americans suffered death and genocide in massacres by American troops in the West (Brown, 1971), and Asian immigrants from China and Japan suffered abuse while they provided the backbone for the labor that helped build the West (Kitano, 1980).

American Indians

For American Indians the 19th century was a period in which their civil rights struggle consisted primarily of staying alive. The years following the Civil War in the United States were tragic ones for the Indians of the Plains as they were systematically removed from their lands either by treaties or by war. The Sand Creek Massacre and Wounded Knee demonstrated how the people suffered genocide that was implemented to make the West safe for “civilized” people. Like other oppressed groups in the United States, Native Americans can question the nature of justice, as well as law and order. Their civil rights were violated by genocide, their forced adaptation of a strange way of life, and their isolation on reservations, not unlike the homelands where Black South Africans were forced to live under apartheid. For American Indians, the matter of civil rights was one of no rights respected by White men. Their struggle in the 19th century and even today has been a struggle for the right to be recognized as human beings and accorded the rights and privileges due to them as citizens.

Late in the 1840s, gold was discovered in California, and thousands of fortune seekers from the East headed for the territories that the United States had recently acquired from the defeated Mexican government. This transition occurred as the people in the eastern United States were beginning to have strong debates over the question of slavery. The discovery of gold encouraged the rapid migration of Americans to “golden opportunities” in the West. Washington policy makers justified the “permanent Indian frontier” as manifest destiny. This concept of destiny assigned to Europeans and their offspring the responsibility of ruling everything within the United States, including the Indians, their land, and the wealth it contained. The inevitable conflicts with the Indians of the Plains led to several broken treaties and countless armed conflicts. The epitome of the civil rights struggles for Native Americans was the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted equal rights to all people, except Indians. This deliberate exclusion, the decision to deny liberty and equality to the native people of America, implied a refusal to recognize the humanity of America's original people.

African Americans

Because millions of people of African descent were forced into slavery in the United States, slavery has been a major civil rights issue for the country. Following their war of independence, the 13 original colonies entered an uneasy peace that was shattered by the emergence of an abolitionist movement that set the stage for organized protest against the institution of slavery. After the war; several states discontinued slavery for people who had served in the Continental Army, and other states ended involuntary servitude, regardless of prior service. These acts formed the foundation for what was to become the movement to abolish slavery.

Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War. The abolitionist movement was the genesis of the American civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe were among the people who most vividly expressed protestations against slavery and Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) was among other forces that contributed to an escalation in sentiment against slavery. Early civil rights protesters were joined by Underground Railroad conductors and the radical challenges of John Brown and others. No factor, however, had a more profound impact on relationships between the North and South than the Dred Scott decision in 1857 (Lipsitz & Speak, 1989). This Supreme Court ruling declared that the Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in certain territories, was unconstitutional; the decision favored slave-holding interests by suggesting that the Missouri Compromise would deprive citizens of their property—slaves—without due process of law. The 14th Amendment in 1866 eventually overturned the Dred Scott decision, but not before a civil war tore the country apart in a bloody four-year conflict.

On January I, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the enslaved people residing in the rebellious states of the South to be free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation can be seen as a war measure, it called attention to the need for additional legislation to ensure the civil rights of African Americans. In 1865 the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery, was passed.

Post–Civil War. In subsequent civil rights legislation, all African Americans were freed from their enforced servitude by the passage of the 14th Amendment. Enactment of the 14th Amendment ensured that most citizens (Indians were excluded from the Act) were allowed equal protection under the law by preventing states from establishing laws that would deprive any person the right of citizenship without due process of law. The 14th Amendment has the reputation of being the most frequently challenged amendment because it was the catalyst for using the Bill of Rights as protection against state action. Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the matter of state's rights was often used by states in the South as a means to restrict liberties that had been promised to African Americans by the 14th Amendment. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, extended the right to vote to African Americans; however, this right was to be short-lived because of changes in voting eligibility in many southern states that were intended to minimize the effect of the mandate.

In the years following the Civil War, in spite of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, the southern states continued to develop procedures and, in some instances, laws that restricted the citizenship of Black people. Before the Civil War, all the southern states had enacted codes that were designed to control and discipline enslaved people. These slave codes, as they were called in some places, became Black codes in the years following the Civil War, designed to restrict the freedom of African Americans and regulate their relationships with White people. In many ways these practices became the foundation on which Jim Crow laws were established to regulate the social, political, and economic life of African Americans. Jim Crow laws continued well into the 20th century until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

Black codes paved the way for the Jim Crow laws, and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 firmly entrenched laws that severely restricted the civil rights of African Americans. In upholding Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court established the idea that the doctrine of separate but equal accommodations was justifiable use of state power (Lipsitz & Speak, 1989). This “separate but equal” doctrine established a heritage that, in practice, resulted in poor services and less-than-adequate opportunities for education and employment for all Americans.

Mexican Americans

Among other groups in the United States who were victimized by discriminatory practices are men and women of Mexican descent. Mexicans, who had a long history of residence in what is now the southwest part of the United States, were among this country's earliest citizens. In February 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican–United States War (McLemore, 1980). This treaty, ratified in October 1848, forced Mexico to give to the United States approximately one-half of Mexico's land, including what is now the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming (Graebner, 1984). Texas had gained its own independence in 1836 but was then annexed to the United States by the 1848 treaty. Mexican Americans are one of the oldest and largest racial and ethnic groups in the United States. As non-Hispanic U.S citizens began to settle in the lands acquired from Mexico, conflicts emerged with the former citizens of Mexico and as a result, these “new” US. citizens lost their land in American courts. Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had ensured that land ownership would be respected for Mexicans remaining on the conquered lands, American courts found Mexican titles and Spanish land grants worthless and allowed others to acquire the land. This support of racism by the American legal system resulted in the denial of due process and fundamental civil rights to another group of early Americans.

20th Century

The 20th century began with continued efforts at improving conditions and opportunities for previously disenfranchised people—women as well as people of color. In 1920 the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. However, the struggle for civil rights for all citizens continued.

Specific Populations

African Americans. African Americans fought courageously in segregated units during World War I, as they continued to fight for civil rights. Not until 1923 did the Supreme Court use its authority to interpret the Constitution to enforce the civil rights amendments and the statutes passed after the Civil War. Moore v. Dempsey involved Black sharecroppers in Phillips County, Arkansas, who had tried to improve their economic condition by organizing; frightened White people reacted violently and more than 200 people were killed. Twelve Black people were accused of murder. In determining that their civil rights to a fair trial had been violated, the Supreme Court initiated an era in which de facto realities were to be more important than de jure laws in considering civil rights cases.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the most active ally of Black citizens at the time, was a powerful force in supporting the defendants. This civil rights organization found much work to be done for civil rights, in spite of modest gains.

Japanese Americans. Another area of discriminatory practice was heightened by the entry of the United States into World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the United States entered the war, over 110,000 Japanese American citizens, who were determined to be security risks, were incarcerated (McLemore, 1980). They were forced to abandon their homes and sell their farms before being sent to concentration camps. In spite of this denial of rights, some Japanese Americans fought and died in the European Theater. Senator Daniel lnouye from Hawaii, who lost an arm in battle, was one of these soldiers. The denial of civil rights to the Japanese Americans during World War II illustrates the ease with which civil rights can be eliminated or restricted.

Mexican Americans. By 1910, in spite of being unwanted and mistreated, Mexicans began a significant movement north to the United States. The upheaval during the Mexican Revolutionary War (1910–1920) was a contributing factor to this movement. However, even before their migration began to become visible, the Mexicans' civil rights were retarded by the same forces that exhibited ethnic antipathies toward African Americans and American Indians. De facto segregation in schools, housing, and employment emerged as Mexican Americans settled in barrios and worked at the menial jobs many were forced to take. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, there were massive deportations of over 400,000 people—many of these citizens were blamed for the economic hardship brought on by the stagnation of the economy and deported as scapegoats. Some of those deported had been U.S. residents for over 10 years, and the forced repatriation included their children, who had been born as citizens in the United States. These violations of civil rights reflected the deep sentiments that have continued to make the struggle for civil rights an ongoing concern for other population groups.

Although there were some modest gains for Mexican Americans, in the 1960s Cesar Chavez became a force for civil rights for Mexican Americans and others as he provided leadership on behalf of migrant workers. His organizational skills and nonviolent approach to civil rights made him a hero and role model to many. During this period, legislation provided new tools. In 1968 the Bilingual Education Act was passed to provide federal aid for bilingual instruction. Bilingual instruction was not new to the United States, as it had begun in the 1840s in Cincinnati, New York City, and other places. The Bilingual Education Act probably gave impetus to a decision by José Angel Gutierrez president of the School Board of Crystal City, Texas. In the early 1970s, Gutierrez ordered elementary school classes in that city to be taught in both English and Spanish (Rivera, 1984). His decision was supported in 1974, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the case of Lau v. Nichols that public schools must provide specially designed programs for students who speak little or no English. Gutierrez was a founding member of the La Raza Unida Party, a political party established to enfranchise Mexican Americans.

Court Decisions

In the latter half of the 20th century, there have been many Supreme Court decisions related to civil rights. The following are among some of the key decisions.

Education. In 1954, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education overruled the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been valid since 1896. The court ruled that segregation of school children on the basis of race was unconstitutional even if the facilities were of equal quality. This decision resulted in the elimination of overt racial discrimination in public areas of transportation, hotel and restaurant accommodation, theaters and auditoriums, parks, recreational areas, and even barber shops. However, it took years of activism to implement the full implications of the decision.

Health. In 1973, the Court's decision in Roe v. Wade gave women the right to abortion and what many believe to be control over their own bodies. Almost simultaneously, however, as a spin-off from the “moral majority” movement, “right-to-life” groups began to mount an offensive against the decision. This “civil rights” movement on behalf of fetuses continues and has culminated in the deaths of at least two doctors who provided abortions.

Housing. In Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, the Court held that private arrangements to maintain racial segregation in housing patterns could not be recognized.

Justice. In Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the Court determined that indigent accused have the right to secure appointment of legal defense at the government's expense. The Miranda decision in Arizona in 1966 established the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The decision required that police inform a person taken into custody of the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. Since 1966, the Supreme Court has modified this decision in a number of ways. With the In re Gault decision in 1967, the Court established protection for juveniles, including the right to representation by legal counsel, right to timely notice, right to confront and cross-examine complainants, and right to protection against self-incrimination.

Civil Rights Legislation

The first civil rights act since 1875, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (EL. 85–315), established the Commission on Civil Rights and strengthened federal enforcement powers. In the early 1960s, a number of events, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, protest actions by civil rights groups, and the civil rights commitments of President Lyndon B. Johnson, established a climate for advanced civil rights legislation. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pt. 88–352).

The act strengthened voting rights and mandated equal access in a number of key areas. Any program receiving federal funding was forbidden to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. Victims of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in cases that involved interstate commerce were granted injunctive relief; that is, the Court has the power to order certain acts to be done. The U.S. Department of Education was authorized to desegregate public education. The Civil Rights Commission was given expanded investigative power. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to oversee civil rights in employment. To help communities resolve problems involving discrimination, the act set up a Community Relations Service in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Pt. 94–142) extended national public education policy to mandate free public education for all children with disabilities. In 1986 the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendment (Pt. 99–457) expanded services to children with disabilities from birth through age five years. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act gave the United States an opportunity to remove yet another deterrent to full citizenship for another class of U.S. citizens. The implementation of the Act took a significant step not only toward making the workplace more accessible to people with disabilities, but also ensuring that the world is more open and receptive to all people, including those who were prevented from obtaining services because they were not sighted or because they were dependent on a wheelchair for transportation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 (PL. 102–166) reversed a set of Supreme Court decisions that had eroded protection of women and people of color in the workplace. The Act mandates monetary damages for victims of intentional discrimination based on race, gender, disability, or religion. Age, however, was not included as a discriminating factor.

Other Struggles for Civil Rights

On an August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream of a United States free of the racial bigotry that had been so carefully preserved by the authors of the Jim Crow legislation that governed Black and White relationships in the South. Although Dr. King's enduring words motivated change for some, the struggle has continued for disenfranchised groups.

Almost 30 years after Dr. King's address, gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals filled the streets of Washington, DC, to demonstrate for civil rights. The importance of this large demonstration lies in the fact that U.S. citizens witnessed another 20th century milestone in the history of human rights. The 1993 March on Washington called attention to the fact that millions of Americans were being dehumanized and discriminated against, not because of the quality of their character, but because of their sexual orientation.

The years between the two demonstrations reflect the transformation that is taking place in the United States, as the matter of civil rights has become more inclusive and as the legal claims and privileges of a greater number of people are being protected. Diverse groups now call attention to the manner in which established customs and laws have deprived citizens of fundamental rights. For example, people have challenged the insensitivities that denied people access to facilities because they could not manipulate a wheelchair in a bathroom or use an elevator that gave directions only for sighted people. In Michigan an individual's right to assisted suicide was challenged by conflicts between those who believe it imperative to maintain life and those who believe the individual has a right to end his or her own life under special circumstances. Elsewhere, proponents of the rights of the unborn child have taken their struggle to such extremes that violence and death have occurred.

Since the tragedy of September 11, 2001, the civil rights struggle has taken on a new look as citizens have responded to governmental actions that have been designed to impose sanctions on those believed responsible for the horror that led to the loss of so many lives. In addition, security measures have been developed to avoid future tragedies such as those witnessed on September 11, 2001. Perhaps, it was the loss of the security felt by many Americans that led to the actions taken by the government of the United States. The bombing of the World Trade Center and the other events of September 11 were tragic reminders of the fragile nature of American civil rights.

A consequence of the events of 9/11 was the alleged abridgment of the rights of persons charged with being an enemy of the United States for supposedly being engaged in terrorist acts. For many it appeared as though the country's officials acted quickly to safeguard the nation by so quickly rounding up suspected terrorists in the days and months following 9/11. For many others however, the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States were violated as people were rounded up and jailed without due process. The fact that many persons were incarcerated and not afforded a right to counsel nor a speedy trial raised questions as to whether or not the United States government was running roughshod over American civil rights. Fundamentally, some citizens were asking if we can do this now, where it will end? Others simply wondered if citizens of the United States should give up some of their rights in order to be secure from further terrorist activities. Actions by some government officials appear to give cause to wonder about the civil rights of citizens. In the interests of national security, government wiretapping has apparently been expanded. It appears as though the sanctity of the home is now threatened by a greater good, national security. Many now question whether or not civil rights are being eroded in the name of national security.

In addition to wiretapping, arrests, and incarceration without a speedy trial, there also appears to be a sense of discrimination in the name of national security, if one looks like a terrorist. Increasingly there are accounts being reported of individuals being removed from planes because of the apparent irrational fears of some persons who believe the behavior of some passengers represents the behavior of extremists. Many express concerns about whether the nation is headed toward a scenario that will permit the expulsion or discrimination of persons because their manner and behavior is simply different. Some wonder whether or not racial profiling has taken on a new look as is reflected in discriminatory behavior toward persons of Middle Eastern descent.

On another front, the United States, a nation of immigrants, seems to have become intolerant of some immigrants. Contemporary America is becoming replete with illustrations of a nation that appears to be more selective about which immigrants are welcomed and which ones are not. While some of the backlash against immigrants appears to be derived from the aftermath of 9/11, some of the anti-immigrant reaction is race- and class-based. Regardless of their roots, the antipathies directed at immigrants has resulted in extremist behavior that seems to rival that directed at Blacks in the 1880s; and the negative behavior directed at Mexican Americans following the American expansion in the far West during the middle of the 19th century.

Antipathies aimed at immigrants come in a variety of forms including the more overt forms of discrimination that have come to characterize the American experience. But several other strategies have surfaced that are designed to control or minimize the influx of immigrants, especially those from Mexico and South America. In the Southwest, a wall is being built to keep out of the United States the men and women who try to come across the border in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. In addition, vigilante groups of citizens have been formed in some parts of the United States to keep out immigrants in their attempts to cross the border. Some wonder how these groups differ from the actions of the Klu Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council of the old South In other parts of the country various laws are being enacted that are designed to contain or force immigrants out of communities. In some locations communities have enacted laws that restrict the number of adults who can live in a house. In other places efforts are being made to limit the total number of persons living in a household. Such efforts to make immigrants unwelcome seem very similar to the lawlessness of the old South to establish laws that were designed to control the lives of African American citizens. In other locales, local communities are seeking to impose sanctions that would prevent immigrants from receiving social services and access to education. While these and similar measures may not yet be enacted across the country, the sentiments they express are supported by many. The danger may well be that the nation may find itself resorting to bad habits by forgetting its history.

At this point in time, none of these measures have been tested in the Supreme Court. However, one can assume that it is only a matter of time before these laws will be challenged in American courts. The civil rights enjoyed by most in the United States have come because of the sacrifice and support of men and women who believe that equality is best served by the guarantee of civil rights. The threat to these rights may be a threat to all that the constitution of the United States has come to represent. The 20th century was challenged by the color line. The 21st century also seems to be challenged by color, culture, and language. The challenge for social work as it moves forward will be to ensure that the broad definition of civil rights be inclusive so that none is deprived of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Social Work Profession and Civil Rights

Social work has its origins in the turbulent years of the Progressive Era. Those were years of constant change as the United States experienced rapid growth resulting from the immigration of Eastern Europeans and other populations seeking opportunities in the land of democracy. During those years, large numbers of African Americans migrated north to flee the racial antipathies of the southern Jim Crow policies. Although they were not always in the forefront of civil rights and social justice, the leading social reformers eventually developed a stance consistent with democratic values and a belief in the rights of all people regardless of race, color, or creed. As a founding member of NAACP, Jane Addams was one of the social reformers who joined with W. E. B. Du Bois to establish this early civil rights organization. Such action set the standard for what has become the social work profession's commitment to civil rights.

The advocacy role of social work forces the continuation of behavior that is supportive of civil and human rights. The settlement house movement from which social work originated supported actions that increased the diversity of the profession. This diversity is reflected not only by the people who deliver services, but also by the profession's willingness to offer services that are sensitive to people's differences. Now that social work comprises individuals who are of diverse backgrounds, the profession should be increasingly closer to the forefront in advocating for human rights. The struggle for civil rights should continue as long as any group of people is oppressed and not permitted the opportunity to achieve.

During the past several years, the major social work organizations have taken steps to ensure that all their members have an opportunity to participate fully in the management of their organizations. They have achieved this goal by developing standards and organizational bylaws that value the diversity of their memberships and by establishing mechanisms that ensure the widest possibility for participation of individual members.

For several years, NASW has worked with a number of civil rights groups. In addition, NASW has made elimination of racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty major national priorities. The NASW Delegate Assembly, the organization's governing body, has developed public policy statements relating to disabilities, gay men and lesbians, women, abortion, people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), people of color, and other civil rights issues. Similarly the Council on Social Work Education, which accredits schools of social work, has expressed a strong commitment to addressing concerns related to oppressed groups in its curriculum policy statement and accreditation standards. Thus, cultural diversity, women, and sexual orientation are mandated areas for curricula of accredited social work programs.

Future Issues

The arrival of the 21st century finds social workers faced with a new set of civil rights issues. Among them will be the question of how immigrants to the United States will be treated. With civil wars in Eastern Europe and poverty in the Caribbean and in Central and Latin America, the plight of immigrants—who they are, who they should be—will be a subject of debate. Unlike the immigrants of the last century, many of the current ones are people of color. During the 1994 general election, Californians voted overwhelmingly to deny basic services to many immigrants. This and other actions call to question the changing nature of racism as we struggle to understand why the new immigrants are not as welcome as the “huddled masses struggling to breathe free” were in the waning years of the 19th century On the other hand, the previous history of the civil rights struggle in the United States may offer some clues as to how the nation may extend and protect these rights in the next century.

Another civil rights focus is end-of-life decisions. Until the late 20th century, it was presumed that people should not have decision-making authority over how their lives may end. However, activists are suggesting changes. Choice In Dying promotes living wills, the use of other advance directives, and attention to civil rights for people who face the end of their lives. Other groups also address rights in dying, and a physician promotes the right to die by offering aid to people who want to end their lives.

The 20th century began with attention to the civil rights problems of African Americans who were forced by law into a condition of second-class citizenship. As the United States has matured, its citizens have become less tolerant of some forms of discrimination and have expanded this nation's capacity to extend and promote civil rights to a larger group of citizens.

Since the 1963 March on Washington, there have been renewed efforts to break down the formal and informal barriers that disadvantage women. Equity in pay and employment benefits still remain key concerns of women. In addition, women still must deal with the hostility that is manifested in violence by men who consider women property––a situation not unlike the slavery that existed before the U.S. Civil War. Shelters provide a refuge for women who are the victims of violence, just as the Underground Railroad provided refuge for African Americans fleeing the bondage of slavery Yet, more remains to be done so that women have the legal means to shelter themselves from the violence of men that often ends in a woman's death, because current laws do not provide adequate protection from abuse.

The 20th century has witnessed civil rights transformed from a focus on African Americans in the early 1900s to an enlarged perspective that is more inclusive. The citizens of the United States are now more aware of their diversity and diverse needs. The founders of this country were White men who, in the early years, served their own needs. Now that the citizenry is represented by elected officials who more accurately reflect that citizenry, those officials have brought focus to issues that reflect their differences. Today's elected officials are not all White men. They are women, and they are Americans of African, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Mexican, Native American, and Asian descent. Elected officials today may be gay or lesbian. They may be people with disabilities. The diversity this country has begun to embrace has led to a greater awareness of the need for legislation that will ensure that all people are valued and that all have equal protection under the law.

Since it became a nation, the United States has struggled with how to reduce the arbitrary discrimination faced by people who suffer persecution because they are members of an oppressed group. The civil rights struggle continues today because this nation has not found ways to ensure that all people have equal access to the right of citizenry. The process to include different populations under the civil rights umbrella has been incremental and dependent on the identification of oppressed groups. The struggle continues because, as one group—be it disabled people or gay men and lesbians—advances, another oppressed group finds both the courage and the support to mount its own struggle for civil rights.

Finally the struggle for civil rights continues because obstacles such as bigotry in diverse forms still pose threats to equal opportunity for all citizens. Although these threats may seem small, represented by fringe groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Nation, they serve as reminders of the diversity of this nation. And they reinforce the idea that civil rights have been granted to those who have fought for them, rather than having them awarded as a birthright of a privileged class.


  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. (1991). P.L. 101–336, 104 Stat. 327.
  • Bilingual Education Act of 1968. (1968). P.L. 89–30.
  • Brown, D. (1971). Bury my heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. 347 U.S 483.74 S. Ct. 686 (1954).
  • Burns, E. M., Ralph, P. E., Lerner, R. E., & Meacham, S. (1986). World civilizations. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1866. (1866). Ch. 31, 14 Stat. 27.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1957. (1957). Pt. 85–315, 71 Stat. 634.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1964. (1964). FL. 88–352, 78 Stat. 24.
  • Civil Rights Act of 1991. EL. 102–166,105 Stat. 1071, 1991.
  • Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. (1975). Pt. 94–142, 89 Stat. 773,.
  • Education of the Handicapped Act Amendment. (1974). Pt. 99–457, 100 Stat. 1145.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright. (1963) 83 S. Ct. 792.
  • Graebner, N. A. (1984). Mexican war. In World book encyclopedia (Vol. 13, pp. 369–371). Chicago: World Book Inc.
  • In re Gault. (1967). 387 US. 1.
  • Kitano, H. L. (1980). Race relations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Lau v. Nichols. (1974). 414 US. 563, 94 786.
  • Lipsitz, L., & Speak, D. M. (1989). American democracy. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • McLemore, S. D. (1980). Racial and ethnic relations in America. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
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Further Reading

  • Baker, R. S. (1964). Following the color line. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Branch, T. (1988). Parting the waters: America in the King years 1954–63. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Compton, B. (1980). Introduction to social welfare and social work. Homewood, IL: Dorsey Press.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. (1983). Black reconstruction in America. West Hanover, MA: Halliday Lithography.
  • Franklin, J. H. (1947). From slavery to freedom. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Higginbothan, A. L. (1980). In the matter of color. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lawson, K. (1998). Proceedings from Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, Building One Nation: A Study of What Is Being Done in Schools, Neighborhoods and the Work Place.
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund and Commission on Immigration, American Bar Association, American Justice Through Immigration Eyes. A.B.A. Doc. ISBN No. 1-59031-384-4 (2004).
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, American for Fair Chance, Anti Affirmative Action Threats In the States, 1997–2003, January 30, 2004.
  • Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before and After September 11, 2001, (2003).
  • Meier, A., & Rudwick, E. M. (1966). From plantation to ghetto. New York: Hll & Wang.
  • Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Woodward, C. V. (1966). The strange career of Jim Crow. London: Oxford University Press.
  • USA PATRIOT Act, H.R. 3162, 107th Congress, Public Law 107–56, October 26, 2001.
  • USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, H.R. 3199, 109th Congress, Public Law 109–177, March 9, 2006.