Civil Rights: Law and History

The Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776, stated “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal…” Yet the new nation declaring its independence permitted the continuation of the practice of slavery for people of African heritage – a practice that continued until the Civil War in the 1860s. At the conclusion of the Civil War, much remained to be done to ensure the rights and privileges of citizenship to all Americans. As America became a more diverse nation, welcoming immigrants from around the globe, problems of racial discrimination endured for many minority group members. Women and persons with disabilities also fought for and obtained laws that provided for fairness and equality.

Background and Introduction

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed the slaves held in the states still fighting in the Civil War. After the War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865, abolished slavery everywhere in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, made the former slaves, and any other person born in the United States or naturalized, a citizen and required that all citizens be granted equal protection of the law. The Fifteenth Amendment, adopted in 1879, made it against the law to deny any citizen the right to vote because of his or her race or color or because he or she was formerly a slave.

Despite the promises of these new laws, the former slaves and their descendants, along with other racial and ethnic minorities, did not receive equal treatment under the law. In fact, in 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that State governments could separate people of different races as long as the separate facilities were equal. This “separate but equal” doctrine lasted until 1954 when the Supreme Court overruled its previous decision in cases involving schools in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. Also in the 1890s, African-Americans were kept from exercising their right to vote by taxes, called “poll taxes”, that had to be paid before a person could cast a vote and by tests given by voting registrars who had the power to pass or fail an applicant based on the color of his or her skin. Poll taxes and voting tests were finally outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man who had boarded the bus after she did. At that time, public buses in the South were segregated, and African-Americans not only had to ride in the back of the bus, but also had to give up their seats to any white person who wanted to sit. Ms. Parks was arrested and taken to jail for refusing to give up her seat. On December 5, 1955, African-Americans in Montgomery began a boycott of the public buses led by a minister who had recently come to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The peaceful boycott continued for 381 days during which time 90% of the African-Americans in Montgomery refused to ride the buses. At the end, the buses in Montgomery were desegregated.

Public Accommodations and Facilities

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Places of public accommodation are hotels, motels, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and concert halls.

Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, persons from minority groups were excluded from, or segregated in, restaurants, motels, theaters, and other places of public accommodations. On February 1, 1960, 4 African-American students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College went into the Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter and ordered cups of coffee. The waitress refused to serve them coffee unless they stood up to drink it because only whites were allowed to sit at the lunch counter. The black students sat at the lunch counter until the store closed, but were never served their coffee. The next day they returned with more students and the peaceful protest called a “sit-in” was begun. Across the South, peaceful sit-ins by students took place in more than 100 cities in 1960. Although the protesters were beaten, and sometimes sent to jail, they continued to peacefully sit-in until they achieved their goals – desegregation of places of public accommodation.

In 1961, a new phase of the movement to desegregate places of public accommodation began – the “Freedom Rides.” African-Americans were still sitting in the back of the buses in the South and were not permitted to use “whites only” restroom facilities in the terminals even though the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation on interstate buses (buses that traveled between states) in 1946. In May 1961, the first group of 13 Freedom Riders, white and black ranging in age from college students to a 60-year-old professor and his wife, left Washington, DC, on their way via Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana. They went in 2 buses. Riders in the first bus were attacked in both Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama. The Freedom Riders on this bus were beaten by men with pipes. The second bus was firebombed just outside of Anniston, Alabama.

Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public facilities because of race, color, religion, or national origin. Public facilities are facilities owned, operated or managed by state or local governments, like courthouses or jails. At the same time as the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, other protesters demonstrated against segregation in public facilities.


Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public schools because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Public schools include elementary schools, secondary schools and public colleges and universities.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But implementation of the Court’s decision went slowly, with massive resistance from the states. In 1957, a federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the 9 black children who were enrolled in Central High School from attending the school. Mobs of angry people greeted the students on the first day of school. These students were prevented from attending the school until President Eisenhower made the National Guard part of the federal army and also sent 1,000 paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to protect these 9 children. In September 1958, Governor Faubus closed all the schools in Little Rock to prevent any more black children from attending white schools. The schools remained closed until August 1959, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered them re-opened.

In January 1961, James Meredith, an African-American, applied for admission to the University of Mississippi. Officials at the school returned his application. Mr. Meredith took his case to court. On September 10, 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he had the right to attend the University of Mississippi. The Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, personally blocked Mr. Meredith from registering at the University even after the Supreme Court ruled. Finally, on September 30, 1962, a Sunday, Mr. Meredith was escorted onto the campus by federal marshals and Civil Rights Division lawyers. Stationed on or near the campus to protect him were 123 deputy federal marshals, 316 US Border Patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards. Within an hour, the federal forces were attacked by a mob that would grow to number 2,000 and who fought them with guns, bricks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The marshals had been ordered not to shoot and so used tear gas to try to stop the rioting. The violence continued until President Kennedy sent 16,000 federal troops to the campus. When it was over, 2 people were dead, 28 marshals had been shot, 160 people were injured, and James Meredith became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

In 1962, Cesar Chavez set out to organize migrant farm workers in the California grape fields into a union. The farm workers were mostly Hispanic, although there were other ethnic groups represented, and had an average family income of about $2,000 per year. In 1965, the farm workers went on strike in a movement known as La Causa. In 1966, Mr. Chavez led a 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to bring attention to the farm workers’ conditions. The nonviolent strike lasted 3 years. In the end, most California grapes were grown in fields with Farm Workers Union labor.

In February 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, went on strike to protest unfair treatment. During a period of bad weather, 22 black workers had been sent home without pay while white workers were not sent home and were paid. The striking sanitation workers marched for their rights, but no resolution was reached. On several occasions during March, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to speak, but still no settlement of the strike was made. Dr. King returned to Memphis again on April 3 to lead a march on behalf of the striking workers. On April 4, 1968, at the Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was assassinated.

Voting Rights

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination in voting practices or procedures because of race and color. In 1957 and 1960, Congress had enacted voting rights laws that took small steps toward increasing minority voting participation for all Americans. The 1965 Act, however, made huge strides towards making voting rights a reality. The Act prohibited literacy tests and poll taxes which had been used to prevent blacks from voting. In 1975, Congress recognized the need to protect citizens who did not read or speak English well enough to participate in the political process and expanded the protections of the Voting Rights Act to them.

In 1963, civil rights activists began an effort to register black voters in Dallas County, Alabama. During 1963 and 1964, although they brought potential voters by the hundreds to the registrar’s office in the courthouse in Selma, they were unable to get them registered to vote. In January and February 1965, protests were held in Selma to bring attention to this violation of rights. The protests were met by violence by Sheriff James Clark and his deputies. On February 17, a small civil rights march ended in the shooting of Jimmy Lee Jackson who died from his wounds several days later. The civil rights activists decided to hold a memorial march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery on March. 7.

Approximately 600 marchers started out on the march that Sunday morning. When the marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge on the outskirts of Selma, they were met by about 200 state troopers, and Sheriff Clark and his deputies mounted on horseback, all armed with tear gas, night sticks and bull whips. The marchers were ordered to turn back. When they did not, they were attacked by the law enforcement officers. The air filled with tear gas and marchers were beaten, whipped and trampled by the horses. Finally, they turned around and returned to Selma. 17 marchers were hospitalized.

Dr. King and his supporters filed a federal lawsuit requesting to be permitted to proceed with the march. On March 21, the march began again, with federal troops protecting the marchers, and proceeded to Montgomery. In Montgomery, a rally was held on the steps of the state capitol. However, within hours of the end of the march, 4 Ku Klux Klan members shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, a white 39-year-old civil rights volunteer from Detroit, Michigan, who had come to support the Alabama African-Americans. President Lyndon Johnson said, “Mrs. Liuzzo went to Alabama to serve the struggle for justice. She was murdered by the enemies of justice who for decades have used the rope and the gun and the tar and the feather to terrorize their neighbors.” In August, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act.

According to a report of the Bureau of the Census from 1982, in 1960 there were 22,000 African-Americans registered to vote in Mississippi, but in 1966 the number had risen to 175,000. Alabama went from 66,000 African-American registered voters in 1960 to 250,000 in 1966. South Carolina’s African-American registered voters went from 58,000 to 191,000 in the same time period.


The Fair Housing Act, contained in Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, financing or rental of housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

Shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, in the summer of 1965, a riot erupted in the Watts section of Los Angeles over accusations of police brutality against a black motorist. During the next 4 summers, similar riots and unrest broke out in cities throughout the United States. The quest for civil rights had moved out of the South and spread to the rest of the country.

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. went to Chicago to lead rallies and protests on a number of civil rights issues. In a report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1959, Chicago had been called “the most residentially segregated large city in the nation.” Soon, the attention of all the civil rights activists in Chicago turned to the issue of fair housing. Black residents of Chicago were squeezed into small areas of the city and were unable to find housing outside of those areas. The civil rights movement began to march into white-only areas of Chicago only to be met by mobs of whites. In July 1966, marchers were attacked with stones and bottles. One march of 350 was met by a mob of 4,000. Finally, at the end of August, city leaders met with Dr. King and agreed to a program of fair housing.

The law first passed in 1968 did not work well. Under the law, the Federal government had a small role in enforcing fair housing laws. In 1988, Congress enacted amendments to the Fair Housing Act that gave the Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development a large role in enforcing the law. The Department of Justice litigates Fair Housing cases in court, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development investigates and attempts to resolve complaints of housing discrimination.

Rights of Institutionalized Persons

The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 ensures that the rights of persons in institutions are protected against unconstitutional conditions. Those confined in government institutions include persons with disabilities, the elderly in government-run nursing homes, and prisoners.

In March of 1972, a group of parents, volunteer organizations, and individual residents at the Willowbrook State School for the Mentally Retarded filed a federal lawsuit against the State of New York and the administrators of the school to correct conditions at the school. At that time, Willowbrook had a population of 5,700 housed in 43 buildings. Officially 65% over capacity, it was the largest institution of its kind in the United States. Over 75% of the residents were profoundly or severely retarded and over half had been in Willowbrook for more than 20 years. Conditions for the residents at Willowbrook were hazardous to the health, safety and sanity of the residents. The residences were dirty, people didn’t have clean clothes to wear, the plumbing didn’t work, and there were not enough doctors and nurses to take care of them. During 8 months in 1972, there were over 1,300 reported incidents of injury, assaults or fights. The Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Department of mental Hygiene in charge of Willowbrook described the institution as a “major tragedy.” The Civil Rights Division intervened in the lawsuit as amicus curiae (which means “friend of the court”) to help the parents and others prove that the rights of the residents were being violated. After 3 years of court actions, all the parties to the lawsuit agreed on a settlement to correct the conditions at Willowbrook. It was, however, several years before everything that was wrong with Willowbrook was fixed.

Americans with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination in employment, in places of public accommodation, including all hotels, restaurants, retail stores, theaters, health care facilities, convention centers, parks, and places of recreation, in transportation services, and in all activities of state and local governments because a person has a disability.

Approximately 43,000,000 Americans have one or more physical or mental disabilities, and this number is increasing as the population as a whole is growing older. Individuals with disabilities continually encounter various forms of discrimination, including outright intentional exclusion and access to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits, jobs, or other opportunities.

Think how difficult it would be to communicate with 911 (the emergency number) if you couldn’t hear. A Telephone Device for the Deaf (TDD) is a machine that is used in conjunction with a telephone to communicate with others who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have speech impairments, by typing and reading communications. A TDD user types his or her conversation, which is read on a display by the receiver using a TDD. Both parties must have TDDs to communicate. A TDD is similar to the teletypewriters used by Western Union to “wire” transmissions. When typing on a TDD, each letter is transmitted by an electronic code called Baudot, which is sent through the telephone line to the TDD on the receiving end of the call — the same way voice communications occur between two parties. The receiving TDD transforms the tones back to letters on a small display screen. But, until the ADA, most emergency services didn’t have TDDs.

For people in wheelchairs, there are many barriers in everyday life. Every building that has steps, but no wheelchair ramp, is out of reach. Even once inside a building, some carpets are so deep that the wheels on the chair can’t be moved.

In 1992, a 9 year old Seminole, Florida girl who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair wanted to participate in a Sears, Roebuck and Co. modeling program – a 4 session course in fashion modeling for children ages 8-17. According to the girl’s mother, the Model’s Club Program instructor said that the girl could not participate in the program because they used a ramp for the models that was one foot off the ground and that the girl would be out of place with the other children. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigated the complaint and entered into a settlement agreement with Sears to ensure that this girl, and any other child with a disability, would be able to attend the modeling program.

American Indians

American Indians are those peoples who were on the North American continent before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. There were hundreds of different tribes native to both North and South America. Historically we have called these Native peoples Indians by mistake – Columbus thought he had reached the Continent of India. Today we use the term American Indian because that is the term used in the Constitution. Indian tribes call themselves by many names. They might be known by both an English name and a name in their tribal language. The Navajo call themselves Dine’ which means “the People.” The Tohono O’odham (People of the Desert) were known for many years by the name Papago.

The Constitution of the United States specifically refers to Indian tribes where it says that “Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations, among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.”

There are over five hundred and fifty American Indian tribes that have tribal governments that are recognized by the United States in a government to government relationship. There are also approximately 300 federal Indian reservations in the United States. On an Indian reservation the tribal government performs many of the same functions that State governments do. There are tribal court systems, departments of justice and police forces on most reservations.

Indian reservations are usually lands that the tribes kept when they entered into treaties with the federal government. Indian Treaties have the same recognition under federal law as do treaties with foreign governments such as France or Germany. Some Indian Reservations are land bases that are larger than some states. The Navajo Reservation is approximately 14,000,000 acres of land. The State of Massachusetts is only 5,284,480 acres. The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming is 1,888,000 acres. The State of Rhode Island is 776,960 acres. There are twelve Indian Reservations that are larger than Rhode Island and nine reservations larger than Delaware (1,316,480 acres). The Navajo Reservation, which is the largest, is larger than nine States (Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island).

American Indians are also a racial group who sometimes face discrimination the same as African Americans do. In fact, before the civil rights laws were enacted, in some states you could find three separate drinking fountains labeled “whites,” “Colored” and “Indian.” There were also three sections in some movie theaters. All of the civil rights laws that protect people from discrimination because of race or color or national origin also protect American Indians.

Recently the U.S. Department of Justice sued a school district in Utah for not having a high school in the remote community of Navajo Mountain. The Navajo and Paiute high school age students who live in this community all had to go more than 90 miles from home and live in dormitories or with relatives and attend boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The school district had built high schools in the communities where non-Indians lived. The school district argued that because the Indians live on a reservation they didn’t have a right to a public school built and operated by the district. American Indians are citizens of the United States and of the States where they live. The court ruled that even though they live on an Indian reservation, American Indians have a right to receive all of the same services that state and county governments offer to all other citizens of the state. The settlement of this lawsuit required the school district to build a new high school in this community. A temporary high school program began in September 1997. This lawsuit was the first time the Civil Rights Division had ever enforced the education statutes on behalf of American Indians. This lawsuit was originally filed by Indian students and their parents. Both the Navajo Nation and the United States joined in the lawsuit to support the students and their parents.

Japanese American Interment

On December 7, 1941, the country of Japan bombed the United States military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As a result, the United States entered World War II against Japan, Germany and Italy. As a result of the war with Japan, many people in the U.S. did not trust people of Japanese ancestry. Even Japanese-Americans who were born in this country were mistakenly thought to be loyal to Japan. There was no proof that they were disloyal to America. However, the federal government and its military leaders decided that no one of Japanese ancestry could live on the west coast of the United States, while people of Italian and German ancestry could remain. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which began this prohibition.

Over 120,000 people, including children and the elderly, were required to leave their homes in California and parts of Washington, Oregon and Arizona. Most people did not have time to store or sell their household goods at a fair price. Some people moved to other states, but the majority went to internment camps. They were only allowed to take few belongings with them, and many families lost virtually everything they owned except what they could carry. Internees spent many years in camp, behind barbed wire fences and with armed guards patrolling the camps. Entire families lived in cramped, one room quarters that were poorly constructed.

In 1980, the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians was established by Congress. This commission reviewed the impact of Executive Order 9066 on Japanese-Americans and determined that they were the victims of discrimination by the Federal government.

On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act was passed by Congress to provide a Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000.00 to the internees, evacuees, and persons of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property because of discriminatory action by the Federal government during World War II. The Act also created the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund to help teach children and the public about the internment period.