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Democracy in America

Civil Rights: Demanding Equality

Civil rights, the equal treatment of people, would seem axiomatic in a nation that cherishes the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Yet equality has, as the stories show, often been honored in the abstract and denied in reality.

The promise of political and social equality has a powerful hold on American life. This unit brings to life the roles that individuals played in changing our understanding of equality both socially and politically.


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 elusive 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 blackface, 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.

Using the Video: Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • What did DuBois mean when he wrote about the “double consciousness”?
  • Should the Fourteenth Amendment be read to guarantee equal opportunity or equal outcomes?
  • Can effective equal protection rights be guaranteed to individuals or must these guarantees be based on group membership?
  • How has the entrance of large numbers of women in the workforce changed our understanding of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Using the Video: Watch the Video and Discuss

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes)

The video includes three segments:

1. Ending School Segregation: The Case of Farmville, Virginia

No aspect of segregation was more harmful than the separation of black and white children in public schools, especially in the South. This story is about how black students in 1951 staged a strike in Farmville, Virginia, to protest school segregation. How that strike played a major role in ending school segregation is not widely known. Like many towns in the South, Farmville maintained separate school systems for black and white children. For the black students, it was immediately clear that their school facilities were inferior to those of whites. The story of Farmville is a story of victory, but one long delayed, even long after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Discussion Questions

  • Until the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the relevant legal standard was “separate but equal.” What does Farmville tell you about the enforcement of even that standard? What would have happened if that standard had been strictly enforced?
  • Farmville is a classic example of de jure discrimination, but most discrimination is de facto. How do we address de facto discrimination?
  • At the time of the Brown decision, racial discrimination was overt in almost all areas of life. Why do you think that the NAACP selected discrimination in education as its prime target?

2. Title IX and Girl’s Sports

At America’s birth, the Constitution’s framers granted women almost no civil rights. In fact, it took until 1920 for women to win the right to vote, and until the 1970s to gain overall legal equality. The modern women’s movement adopted several lessons from the Civil Rights Movement. For example, to show they were being discriminated against women had to prove they were treated unfavorably simply because they were women. The story of one fight over equality in youth sports illustrates this ongoing struggle.

Discussion Questions

  • Is the scheduling of athletic seasons by the state an example of discrimination?
  • Does it matter that the different season (different from the boys’) was combined with unequal facilities?
  • Should it matter that most people think that different seasons for the same or comparable sports is acceptable? Does it matter if most girls find it acceptable?

3. Fighting for the Rights of Disabled Americans

Fighting discrimination often takes years of mass organization, protest, political lobbying, and legal challenges to win new laws and the power to enforce them. The 1973 Rehabilitation Act was considered an early victory for supporters of rights for the disabled. It included a provision stipulating that federally funded programs and facilities must be accessible to disabled individuals. The broader Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 expanded the protections first articulated in 1973. But the fight for equality often continues beyond the passage of laws recognizing the rights of those who are experiencing discrimination. No one knows this better than those who seek the end of discrimination against people with disabilities.

Discussion Questions

  • What steps are necessary to eliminate discrimination against those with disabilities?
  • What disabilities should be covered by ADA?
  • Is discrimination against those with disabilities comparable to discrimination against racial minorities and women?

Using the Video: Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion

Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

1. Americans Have Come a Long Way, But There’s Still Work To Be Done (20 minutes)

Discuss what remains to be done in the struggle for equal rights for all citizens. Are there groups of citizens who still don’t enjoy their full rights? Who are they? Where might new claims for guarantees of equality come from in the future? For instance, should the Fourteenth Amendment be read to prohibit discrimination against the poor?

2. What Is To Be Done? (10 minutes)

What efforts must society make to redress discrimination? Discuss the options and costs of redressing past practices of discrimination.

Using the Video: Homework

Read the following Readings from Unit 6 to prepare for next week’s session.

  • Introduction-Legislatures: Laying Down the Law
  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Legislative Powers of the Federal Government”
  • Locke, Legislatures
  • Federalist Papers: “Federalist No. 26”
  • Beveridge, “Remarks Before the Senate Concerning the U.S. Occupation of the Philippines”

Read next week’s Topic Overview.

Using the Video: Classroom Applications

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Americans Have Come a Long Way, But There’s Still Work To Be Done and What Is To Be Done? They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.


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

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 armbands 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.

Web-based Resources Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice offers reports, speeches, and civil rights cases of interest to those interested in civil rights. Their Web site also includes extensive information on rights and litigation involving disabilities, labor, workplace standards, and voting fairness, among many other sections. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Web site offers briefings and papers produced by the nonpartisan agency. Topics include affirmative action, immigration, and post-September 11 rights for criminal defendants.

http://www.naacp.orgThe National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been active since 1909. It is an organization of socially conscious individuals of all races, religions, political affiliations, and ideologies. Programs include legal, political, and grassroots effort to ensure rights and equality for all Americans. in 1968, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) is the leading nonprofit Latino litigation, advocacy, and educational outreach institution in the United States. Its Web site includes materials on the legal, political, educational, and the public policy aspects of civil rights for Latinos.