Civil Rights

In the United States of America, civil rights and liberties include the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, the "equal protection" guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment, and voting rights. Not only are these rights committed to paper in America's founding documents, but they are enjoyed in the every day lives of the people. This might seem a trivial distinction, but in many countries the mere guarantee of rights on paper does not mean that those rights are actually protected by government. Indeed, the constitution of the former Soviet Union (USSR), included guarantees of the rights of expression, religion and privacy. In practice, however, these rights were regularly violated by the Soviet government.

Similarly, the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments all guaranteed, on paper, the same rights to black Americans as those enjoyed by white Americans. However, nearly a century after the Civil War, many of those rights were not realized because of intimidation, discrimination and harassment directed at blacks, especially in the South. The story of civil rights and liberties in this nation, then, is not simply about the effort to include a listing of rights in the Constitution; it is at least as much about the continual effort to see that all Americans actually enjoy them in the course of their daily lives.

Historical Documents

Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln
Affirmative Action Lyndon Johnson
What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Frederick Douglass
A Plea for Free Speech in Boston Frederick Douglass
I Have a Dream Martin Luther King, Jr.
O Captain! My Captain Walt Whitman
Abraham Lincoln James Russell Lowell

Supreme Court Decisions
Dred Scott v. Sandford 1856
Plessy v. Ferguson 1896
Brown v. Board of Education 1954
Brown II 1955
Roe v. Wade 1973
Roe v. Wade: Dissent, Rehnquist
Board of Regents v. Bakke 1978

Reasearch and Study Helps

Is the Death Penalty Constitutional?
How do you become a United States citizen?

What is "Affirmative Action" and why is it so controversial?

Think About It

Does racial discrimination still exist in America? Why? Can Discrimination be eliminated through legislation?
What laws or policies would you recommend to more effectively address racial discrimination in the United States?

Applying What You've Learned

Read the constitution of the former Soviet Union. Note that there are many rights guaranteed in the document. In practice, however, these rights were not afforded to the people of the Soviet Union. Besides committing a guarantee of rights to paper, what else is necessary to assure the enjoyment of those rights?