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Fri, 06.01.1866

The American Civil Rights Movement, a story

On this date, starting with the year 1866, the African American Registry features a brief article and definition of American Civil Rights.

Civil rights are privileges that American people enjoy by law. The term is broader than "political rights," which refer only to rights passed on from a country and held usually only by a citizen. Also, unlike "natural rights," civil rights have a legal and philosophical basis.  In America, civil rights are an outgrowth of the Abolitionist movement against slavery.  Civil rights are usually thought of in terms of the specific rights guaranteed in the Constitution: freedom of religion; speech, of the press; the rights to due process of law, and equal protection under the law.

Since the American Civil War, much of the concern over civil rights in the United States has focused on efforts to extend these rights fully to African Americans. The first legislative attempts to assure Blacks an equal political and legal status were the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875. Those laws gave African Americans such freedoms as the right to sue and be sued, to give evidence, and to hold real and personal property. Like all laws, they have been broken and undermined to this very day. The 1866 act was of doubtful constitutionality and was reenacted in 1870 only after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The fourth Civil Rights Act attempted to guarantee to Blacks those social rights that were still withheld. It penalized innkeepers, proprietors of public establishments, and owners of public transportation for discriminating against African Americans in accommodations, but was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1883.

The Court invalidated the rights on the grounds that they were not properly civil rights and therefore not an area for federal legislation. After the Civil Rights Act of 1870, it was another 82 years until more federal legislation to support the victims of segregation and the disenfranchised.  During that time Blacks began organizing against Jim Crow Laws and for labor rights.  The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) was very effective.  The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were cut to fit through several states as they passed their own civil-rights laws. The 20th-century struggle to expand civil rights for African Americans involved the groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other activist organizations.

This civil-rights movement was advocated by a number of Black people in the late 1950s and ‘60s: Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more. It was aided legislatively by the executive leadership provided by President Lyndon B. Johnson who encouraged the passage of the most comprehensive civil-rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibited discrimination for reason of color, race, religion, or national origin in places of public accommodation covered by interstate commerce, i.e., restaurants, hotels, motels, and theaters. Besides dealing with the desegregation of public schools, the act, in Title VII, forbade discrimination in employment. Title VII also prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender.

In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed which placed federal observers at polls to ensure equal voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 dealt with housing and real estate discrimination. In addition to congressional action on civil rights, other branches of the government have taken action. The most notable was the Supreme Court decisions in 1954 and 1955, declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, and the court's rulings in 1955 banning segregation in publicly financed parks, playgrounds, and golf courses.

Also, in the 1960s, women began to organize around the issue of their civil rights. The federal Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, and, by the early 1970s, over 40 states had passed equal pay laws. In 1972, the Senate passed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) intended to prohibit all discrimination based on gender. But, after failing to win ratification in a sufficient number of states, the ERA was abandoned.

Since the 1970s, a number of gay-rights groups have worked, mainly on the local and state levels, for legislation that prevents discrimination in housing, employment, and the right to marry.   Civil rights continue to be challenged by conservative ideology,  the Bakke case in 1978 is an example.  In 2003, a divided Supreme Court reaffirmed colleges’ right to give an edge to minority applicants to attain campus diversity, striking down a Michigan case.

In a further extension of civil-rights protection, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) barred discrimination against disabled persons in employment and provided for improved access to public facilities.  As of December 20th, 2017, same-sex marriage is legally recognized nationwide.

In the 21st century, the United States has experienced a resurgence of voter suppressionIn 2012, the national voter turnout rate among Black citizens exceeded that of white citizens for the first time in American history.  But this was quickly followed by two devastating U.S. Supreme Court rulings that eliminated core voting rights protections and threatened to undo decades of progress toward a vibrant democracy.  These rulings, combined with the continued existence of decades-old voter suppression and disenfranchisement policies, threaten the fundamental right to vote for millions of Americans. 

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by declaring the formula used to determine covered jurisdictions unconstitutional.  Without a coverage formula, Section 5 is essentially unenforceable, meaning that states with a history of overt white supremacy and voter suppression can once again manipulate their voting policies and procedures without first seeking approval from federal officialsThe response to Shelby in many formerly covered jurisdictions was swift and predictable.  The law threatened to suppress thousands of Black voters and was eliminated only after a federal court ruled that North Carolina sought to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”  But North Carolina was not alone. Multiple formerly covered jurisdictions have used their new freedoms to enact strict voter ID laws, close polling places, and limit access to early voting.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court again gave voter suppression its stamp of approval when it ruled in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute that states were permitted to throw eligible Americans off their voter rolls—also known as purging—just because they decided to skip some elections.  The ruling upheld Ohio’s decision to purge 846,000 disproportionately Black voters from its rolls for infrequent voting over a six-year period. The court’s Husted decision opened the door to remove millions of nonwhite Americans on voter rolls.

It has been said that the American Civil rights movement will never be over.  A successful democracy requires the full participation of its citizens. However, despite legal and policy advancements that have extended the right to vote, the United States continues to conjure the ghosts of an ugly past by employing new voter suppression tactics that target people of color. Remaining vigilant against these efforts and rejecting all remnants recalling the racist past is not an option.


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The Encyclopedia Britannica,
Copyright 2000 Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
ISBN 0-85229-633-0

The African American Atlas
Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference
by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson
Macmillan USA, Simon & Schuster, New York
ISBN 0-02-864984-2

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