What are Civil Rights?

What does the term "civil rights" mean to the American public? As stated in the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” sets the ideal of human rights due to all people. In regards to the rights of people in a society, those rights are defined by the government and conferred upon citizens of a nation or state. For the purposes of these discussions, civil rights are those rights guaranteed to individuals as citizens of a nation, irrespective of gender, race and ethnicity, physical/mental ability, or sexual preference. This roots the examination of civil rights in the process of people exercising those rights within a societal framework and the resistance to those individuals.

Years after the Declaration of Independence, the newly formed United States government ratified the Constitution of 1789, which in addition to codifying the rights of its citizens, formalized the process of disenfranchisement of Native Americans, and further marginalized African-descend people. Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which stated that to become a citizen, a person must be “a free white person, of good character, living in the United States for 2 years.” Those people born in the U.S. to fathers born in the U.S., or who had been naturalized, were citizens. And while women could be citizens, they were unable to vote in the majority of states and had limited property rights, particularly if married.

Westward expansion introduced new groups to the civil rights discussion. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 promised Mexican citizens that suddenly found themselves in the U.S. after the Mexican American War, the rights of U.S. citizens. In short order, their property rights, as well as access to the political process, were legally erased and blunted. Much of the same rationale causing the marginalization of the Mexican-American population was directed toward the Chinese population in the U.S. Once the Chinese population became permanent fixtures in Western mining towns and as labor for the railroads, anti-Chinese agitation led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, denying citizenship to a group that helped develop one-third of the nation. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 removed any vestiges of civil rights for African Americans by legally denying any claim of citizenship. All of these actions left free and enslaved African Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans effectively disenfranchised in a growing and expanding nation.

The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in the second half of the 19th century resolved the issue of citizenship for many groups, granting them the same rights as the rest of society. Native Americans, however, were not given citizenship until 1924. Within a short time, social practices, policies, and laws created barriers to the full realization of their rights as citizens. Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, immigration quotas, and the denial or repeal of citizenship to groups already ensconced in the U.S. undermined the amendments. Groups that gained citizenship found their rights abrogated, denied, or simply ignored. The 19th Amendment in 1920 gave women the right to vote, but did not provide equal rights. For African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, becoming or being born citizens did not ensure full access to these rights. Disenfranchised groups had to fight to regain their civil rights.

The fight of disenfranchised or marginalized groups to regain their civil rights is generally referred to as a “civil rights struggle.” The use of the term is instructive as it indicates that although rights of citizenship, “inalienable rights,” are granted, for many they have to be wrested from society. Over time, the ranks of marginalized citizens in the U.S. has expanded to include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual people and disabled people. The civil rights struggle takes place within the existing framework of laws, in particular the Bill of Rights, and has gone from being an issue of racial equality to one of equality for all groups.

Last updated: December 6, 2022


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