Overview Unit 5
Civil Rights: Demanding Equality
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Define the term civil rights.
- Understand the differing meanings of the word equality.
- Describe the importance of the Fourteenth Amendment in providing
- Explain the slow evolution of civil rights for African Americans.
- Describe the expansion of our understanding of civil rights
as a protection against gender discrimination.
- Learn about newer demands for guarantees of equality on behalf
of those with disabilities.
Central to the American ideal is equality. But equality is an illusive
goal that requires vigilance. In this unit we look at the struggle
for equality for African Americans, recognizing that despite major
advances (the end of the most restrictive Jim Crow laws), the struggle
continues. At the same time, the unit illustrates that gender equality
has become, in recent years, a major source of friction in several
aspects of American life. Similarly, the unit points out the rising
demand by the disabled for equal treatment and the difficulties
that society has had in meeting these demands.
The Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, boldly
proclaims: "All men are created equal; that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these,
are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Yet for much
of American history the guarantee of equality applied exclusively
to white men. That is no longer the case. But the struggle for political
and social equality is often long and difficult. The problem is
that although Americans support equality in the abstract, the guarantee
of equality requires government action-action that often limits
the liberty of some people. Any discussion of equality must also
confront the question of what equality means. Does it mean equal
opportunity, in which everyone has the opportunity to compete for
things like jobs and admission to educational institutions? Or does
it mean equal outcomes, in which the awards of competition
are spread equally across all sectors of society, including women,
minorities, and the disabled? Assuring equal outcomes obviously
requires more governmental intervention.
The Declaration of Independence also asserts that, "to secure
these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their
just powers from the consent of the governed." The promise
of basic rights in the Declaration was codified in the U.S. Constitution
and its subsequent amendments. Civil rights refer to the
actions citizens demand of their government to protect them in the
exercise of their rights against the discriminatory application
of such rights by governments, groups, or individuals. But it took
more than just a close reading of the Constitution to guarantee
these basic rights for groups such as women, minorities, and the
disabled. For each of these groups it required years of active work
to win new laws that guaranteed their equality.
The Fourteenth Amendment was originally designed to grant equal
rights to the newly freed slaves. But it did not end segregation.
In fact, segregation was supported by the Supreme Court in the case
of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This case involved a Louisiana
law that required blacks and whites to occupy separate railroad
cars. In upholding the law, the Court ruled that "equal protection
of the law" could be interpreted to mean "separate but
equal." In time, the term "Jim Crow," often
associated with minstrel shows in which white actors dressed in
black face, was used to describe laws and customs that segregated
Building on the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of
Education, which overturned the separate but equal doctrine
asserted in the Plessy case, the civil rights movement began
to dismantle both de jure (segregation by law) and de
facto segregation (segregation in practice) in various places.
The advancement of equality beyond the classroom required several
methods of political mobilization including conventional activities
(e.g., voter registration efforts, boycotts), and unconventional
activities (demonstrations, sit-ins). A major legislative victory
in the civil rights movement was the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
which barred discrimination in public accommodations engaged in
interstate commerce, and prohibited discrimination in employment
on grounds of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, among
Building on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress has expanded
the definition of those groups to be guaranteed equal protection.
Title IX, for instance, has been used to expand opportunities for
women in America's educational institutions. At the same time, statutes
such as the Americans With Disabilities Act have sought to provide
equal opportunities for those with disabilities.