civil rights | Definition

Course: Procedural Law

Civil rights are the legally guaranteed rights to not be treated differently than other people based on certain protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or disability.

Note that civil rights and civil liberties are related concepts, but there are differences.

Civil rights are legally guaranteed rights that protect individuals from being treated differently than others based on certain protected characteristics such as race, gender, religion, or disability. These rights aim to ensure equality, fairness, and justice for all citizens, regardless of their background or identity. This expanded definition will explore the concept, its history and development in the United States, the legal framework that protects them, and its ongoing importance in promoting social justice and inclusion.

I. Understanding Civil Rights

Civil rights are fundamental to creating a society where all individuals are treated fairly and have the same opportunities to succeed. These rights focus on preventing discrimination, promoting inclusivity, and ensuring equal treatment under the law. They encompass a wide range of issues, from voting rights and access to education to equal employment opportunities and protection against hate crimes. By safeguarding these rights, society can work towards creating a more just and equitable world.

II. History and Development of Civil Rights in the United States

The struggle for civil rights has been an ongoing journey throughout American history, marked by significant milestones and events that have shaped the country’s legal and social landscape.

A. Early Beginnings

The foundation for these rights in the United States can be traced back to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, both of which established the principles of individual liberty and equal protection under the law. However, the application of these principles was not always consistent, particularly in regard to the rights of African Americans and other marginalized groups.

B. The Civil War and Reconstruction

The Civil War and the subsequent period of Reconstruction marked a turning point in the fight for civil rights. The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery, granted citizenship to former slaves, and guaranteed the right to vote for all male citizens, regardless of race. Despite these legal advancements, the struggle for true equality continued.

C. The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought renewed attention to the issue of rights as African Americans and their allies fought against racial segregation and discrimination. This period saw the desegregation of public schools, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all of which significantly advanced the cause.

D. Ongoing Struggles

While substantial progress has been made, the fight for these rights continues to this day. New issues and challenges have emerged, such as LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights, and the fight against racial profiling and police brutality. These ongoing struggles demonstrate the importance of these rights in promoting justice and equality for all.

III. The Legal Framework Protecting Civil Rights

In the United States, civil rights are protected by a combination of federal and state laws, as well as the Constitution.

A. The Constitution

The U.S. Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, establishes the foundation for civil rights in the country. Key provisions include the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; the 14th Amendment, which ensures equal protection under the law; and the 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote.

B. Federal Civil Rights Laws

Various federal laws have been enacted to protect and enforce rights. Some of the most significant include:

      1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964: This landmark legislation outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in various areas, including employment, education, and public accommodations.
      2. The Voting Rights Act of 1965: This law aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in voting by prohibiting discriminatory practices such as literacy tests and other obstacles to voting.
      3. The Fair Housing Act of 1968: This law prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
      4. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990: This comprehensive legislation protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in areas such as employment, public services, and public accommodations.

C. State Rights Laws

In addition to federal laws, each state has its own set of civil rights laws that may provide additional protections for citizens. These laws can vary widely from state to state, but they generally address issues such as employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and public accommodations. Some states also have laws that specifically protect LGBTQ+ individuals or cover other protected characteristics not addressed by federal law.

IV. Enforcement of Rights

Protecting and enforcing these rights is a responsibility shared by federal, state, and local governments, as well as various agencies and organizations.

A. Government Agencies

Several federal agencies play a crucial role in enforcing these laws, including the Department of Justice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These agencies investigate complaints, file lawsuits, and work to ensure compliance with these laws.

B. Courts

Courts play an essential role in interpreting and enforcing civil rights by hearing cases and making decisions that clarify the scope and application of civil rights laws. Landmark court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia, have had a profound impact on civil rights in the United States.

C. Civil Rights Organizations

Many civil rights organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Human Rights Campaign, work tirelessly to protect and advance rights through advocacy, education, and legal action.

V. The Importance of Civil Rights Today

Civil rights remain a critical issue in contemporary society as the fight for equality and justice continues. By understanding and defending these rights, individuals can work together to create a more inclusive and equitable world for all.

A. Ongoing Challenges

While significant progress has been made, challenges to rights persist, including issues related to voting rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racial profiling, and police brutality. Addressing these challenges requires continued vigilance, activism, and commitment to the principles of equality and justice.

B. The Role of Education

Educating young people about their rights is essential in fostering a greater understanding of the importance of these rights and inspiring the next generation to become active participants in the fight for justice and equality. By learning about civil rights history, the legal framework that protects them, and the ongoing struggles faced by marginalized communities, students can develop a deeper appreciation for the significance of civil rights in promoting a just and inclusive society.


Civil rights are the cornerstone of equality and justice, ensuring that all individuals are treated fairly and have the same opportunities to succeed, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or disability. This expanded definition has explored the concept, its history and development in the United States, the legal framework that protects them, and its ongoing importance in promoting social justice and inclusion. By understanding and defending them, we can work together to create a more equitable and inclusive world for all.

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Last Modified: 05/08/2023

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