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5. Civil Rights: Demanding Equality, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Topic Overview Unit 5

Civil Rights: Demanding Equality

Learning Objectives

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 equal protection.

  • 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 black citizens.

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 other things.

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.


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