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






Readings Unit 5

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 5 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 5 Readings, Civil Rights: Demanding Equality

  • Introduction—Civil Rights: Demanding Equality

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “The Idea of Rights in the United States”

  • W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Women and Economics


  1. What concept did Tocqueville place above right in political value? How did he explain the relation between this idea and right?

  2. What did DuBois mean when he wrote about “double consciousness”?

  3. What event or activity immediately preceded Douglass’s attempt to escape from slavery?

  4. What were some of the social consequences of women being trained to be non-productive consumers according to Gilman?

Introduction—Civil Rights: Demanding Equality

“The government of a democracy brings the notion of political rights to the level of the humblest citizens,” wrote Tocqueville, “ just as the dissemination of wealth brings the notion of property within the reach of all men; to my mind, this is one of its greatest advantages.” The notion of rights, as Locke would remind us even more explicitly than Tocqueville, is intimately connected to notions of property and privacy; Tocqueville’s comparison is more than a convenient simile, it is also an important historical connection. In the United States, property was one of the first rights to receive significant protections by the government; it would take years of struggle, however, for the humble property-less citizens to begin to have their civil rights protected by the government. Typically, the term civil rights refers to philosophically grounded rights that are maintained by the state—that is, they generally have stronger cultural support due to their suggested naturalness than political rights which derive from the ability to vote. In the United States, civil rights are often conceived as protections against government regulation derived from the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, particularly the freedom of speech, religion, press, and privacy.

Since the time of the Civil War, the primary focus of debate concerning civil rights in the United States has been influenced by the struggles of former slaves and their descendents. The Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871, and 1875 attempted to grant and protect the civil and political rights of former slaves, particularly such common rights as the right to sue in a court of law, to give evidence and to own property. Passed over the veto of President Andrew Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was later strengthened in terms of constitutionality and legality by the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Passed in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment countered the “black codes” and ensured 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 the laws.” The Amendment also gave Congress the power by section five to pass any laws needed for its enforcement. The 1871 Act attempted to extend the civil rights of former slaves by protecting them against discrimination by innkeepers and owners of public transportation. This act was mostly invalidated in the Civil Rights Cases of 1881, in which the Supreme Court ruled that civil rights were properly the domain of the states, not the federal government. After the 1875 Civil Rights Act the federal government, in fact, stayed out of the business of protecting the civil rights of the humble until the middle of the next century.

The most important piece of modern civil rights legislation, at least for the humble, was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Attempts by reformers to force the application of the Bill of Rights through the Fourteenth Amendment was limited by the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment only applied to actions of governments, not the actions of private individuals, even when that action had broad public application such as the refusal to sell basic human necessities such as a place to dine or sleep. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also declared a strong legislative program against discrimination in public schools and colleges. The legislative program was of great importance in desegregating public schools. Title VI of the Act prohibits discrimination in programs funded by the federal government, while Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids employment discrimination by employers engaged in interstate commerce. Congress has followed up this monumental piece of legislation with numerous other acts dealing with discriminatory employment practices.

The Fourteenth Amendment, included with the Constitution in an earlier chapter, plays an important part in the definition and elaboration of civil rights—from rights involved in protecting citizens from racial discrimination to speech, to legal council, and even to birth control. The Fourteenth Amendment has “incorporated” the Bill of Rights to the states. That is, initially the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, did not apply to states. States could have, with constitutional acceptability, established a religion, abridged free speech, or imposed prior restraint on the press. Such limitations on states were debated during the consideration of the First Amendment but were rejected by Congress. The First Amendment was not really intended by its writers to protect the rights of individuals to say whatever they wanted, it was more likely conceived to limit the power of the federal government. All of the Bill of Rights was similarly limited in scope. This is no longer true. Many changes have contributed to the application of the Bill of Rights to the states, including the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Acts. By the later part of the twentieth century, virtually all of the Bill of Rights applied to the states as well as to the federal government.

There have been other changes as well. For example, the word “speech” has undergone a significant transformation as well. In dealing with the First Amendment’s prohibition on the regulation of speech by Congress, the central legal question is simply “What is speech?” This apparently simple question is actually quite complex. Does speech include pornography? Does the First Amendment protect sayings on t-shirts from public decency ordinances? Are pictures speech? Symbols? Those who drafted the First Amendment arguably did not consider the wearing of arm bands to be “speech,” yet in the 1969 decision (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District), the Supreme Court decided that such action was indeed speech and therefore protected under the First Amendment. While the language of the First Amendment has not changed, our sense of language has, as has the meaning of the Constitution, even though its words, in this instance, have not changed. No change is more remarkable than that in the period since World War II. The Bill of Rights has gone from being of little popular significance, since it only applied to the federal government, to being the first elements of citizenship that citizens reference when asked to reflect on what they love about their country.

While all of these changes are quite amazing, equally amazing is that they were mostly forced by the humble. Expansion of rights for blacks and women did not really occur until the groups demanded them. Many of the genuine accomplishments in citizenship in America are, in large part, the result of the humble asserting rights, gaining power, and making their world more livable. Some of the readings collected here present the accounts of rights and wrongs offered by those attempting to improve their worlds. The protection of rights for those historically excluded from such protection did not come easily. There were many setbacks; blacks, for example, were denied the right to vote for generations by the use in Southern states of poll taxes, literacy tests, and the white primary even though the Fifteenth Amendment clearly states that the right to vote cannot be denied on the basis of race. In the 1930s, black civil rights groups began to adamantly demand change, litigate for change, and force change.

It is fair to say that the United States and its citizens, through their habits of political debate, have done a great deal to promote the importance of the idea of rights in the world. Rights are an idea whose time has certainly come. The entire world is now quite attuned to this way of formulating political questions, and civil rights—as opposed to the nationally limited political rights—have become important to regulating the behaviors of nations and international corporations. Rights are now commonly included in international agreements, with nations commiting themselves to the general protections of human rights. The United States, for example, has agreed to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a notable internationally binding legal document concerning civil rights.

“There are no great men without virtue,” wrote Tocqueville, “and there are no great nations—it may almost be added, there would be no society—without respect for right; for what is a union of rational and intelligent beings who are held together only by the bond of force?” (254). Rights have become important ways to hold together not just the diversity of the United States but of the entire world.


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