Defining Civil Rights and Liberties

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.

Supreme Court cases, marches, protests and acts of Congress have all been aimed at making the rights guaranteed in the Constitution a reality. The Civil Rights Movement focused the attention and energy of the nation on the endeavor. It would be naive, however, to conclude that the struggle for equal protection under the law and the extension of civil rights and liberties to all Americans has come to an end. In America's continuing efforts to find the right balance between liberty and order in its political and economic society, there is also a constant need to review governmental policies and actions to assure that the rights of individuals and groups of individuals are not compromised.