The term ‘civil rights’ is frequently heard but few understand the complexity of its definition or its history.
By definition, “Civil Rights” are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment (and to be free from unfair treatment or “discrimination”) in a number of settings — including education, employment, housing, and more — and based on certain legally protected characteristics.
Civil Rights are different than Civil Liberties in that the concept of civil rights revolved around the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics such as race, gender, disability, etc. Civil liberties are more broad-based in definition; they are rights and freedoms that are guaranteed at the federal level by the Constitution and other federal laws.
Most laws that guarantee and regulate civil rights originate at the federal level, either through federal legislation or through federal court decisions. States can also pass their own civil rights laws as well as municipalities such as cities and counties.
Civil rights were meant to ensure people’s physical integrity and safety; to protect them from discrimination, to provide freedom of thought, speech, expression, and religion. Civil and political rights are also meant to protect those who may be discriminated against based on their physical or mental disability, gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, national origin, age, immigration status, etc, from unwarranted action by the government and private organizations. Political rights include natural justice in law such as the rights of the accused, including the right to a fair trial; due process; the right to seek redress or a legal remedy; rights of participation in civil society and politics – including freedom of association, the right to assemble, the right to petition and the right to vote.
Most democracies worldwide have formal written guarantees of civil and political rights. In the United States, the most important expansion of civil rights was the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. Following the Thirteenth Amendment, many states enacted ‘black codes’ which were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly free slaves. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was passed to counter the ‘black codes’ and ensure that no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States or deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of laws. Congress was also given the power in the Fourteenth Amendment to pass any laws needed for its enforcement.
Numerous civil rights statutes, many of which are still in force today, followed these Amendments. One important statute includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also created the prohibition of employment discrimination.
Because civil rights are guaranteed at the federal level, the interpretation is also at the federal level, which can play a crucial role in interpreting the extent of such civil rights. One Supreme Court ruling can change a right throughout the entire country. Supreme Court decisions can also affect the manner in which Congress enacts civil rights legislation.