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Civil Rights History

Welcome to FindLaw's Civil Rights History section, with an assortment of articles and resources covering the history of America's civil rights laws and the stories behind their passage. While civil rights are not a new concept, the statutory protection of civil rights didn't come about until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has been amended and expanded since. This section includes articles about the history of U.S. relations with American Indians, information about access to public accommodations, and major U.S. Supreme Court cases that have shaped civil rights law. Also included is a timeline of events and an overview of civil rights as applied to education.

Key Events in Civil Rights History

As with most laws and social norms, the struggle for civil rights in the United States has followed a long and arduous path. And for every law protecting an individual's basic civil rights, there are unnamed individuals who put their lives on the line for a better future. Also, it's important to remember that civil rights laws don't always follow a linear path. To understand the current state of civil rights in the U.S., you must learn your history. Here is a sampling of some key events in civil rights history:

  • Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) - This Supreme Court decision denied basic civil rights for all black Americans, whether free or slave
  • 14th Amendment (1868) - This amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens
  • 19th Amendment (1920) - This amendment grants women the right to vote
  • Civil Rights Act (1964) - This law prohibits discrimination in several different contexts, and also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) - The ADA protects people with disabilities from discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodation

Civil Rights in Education: A Brief History

Efforts to integrate African-Americans into mainstream life after the American Civil War often were met with fierce pushback, particularly in the South. The matter really came to a head after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Brown Education (1954) that public school segregation violated the 14th Amendment. But it would take a few years before states (again, particularly those in the South) implemented the ruling in earnest.

Perhaps the most well-known incident involved Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who in 1957 ordered the state National Guard to block nine African-American high school students from entering an otherwise segregated school, defying the Court's ruling in Brown. President Eisenhower countered this by making the National Guard part of the federal armed forces, and then promptly sending 1,000 U.S. Army paratroopers to the school to protect the students. Gov. Faubus, in 1958, closed all schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in an effort to prevent black students from integrating. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered them reopened the following year.

But this was hardly the last conflict over school desegregation, which also affected higher education. For example, federal forces tasked with protecting a black University of Mississippi student in 1962 were attacked by an angry mob. The violence escalated, with President Kennedy deploying thousands of federal troops to the campus, and resulted in two deaths and at least 160 injuries.

Civil Rights in Public Accommodations: Overview

Civil rights also extend to public accommodations, which would include parks, public roads, government buildings, and -- perhaps most famously -- public transportation. One day in 1955, Montgomery, Alabama seamstress Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger who boarded after her. At the time, most public facilities in the South were segregated and black bus passengers had to ride in the back and were required to give their seats to white passengers if the bus was full. Ms. Parks was promptly arrested and jailed for her action.

This led to a boycott of public transportation by African-Americans in Montgomery, emboldened rising civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and eventually led to the desegregation of Montgomery's bus system. Ms. Park's protest also was used as a rallying cry for civil rights across the country.

To learn more about the history of civil rights in the United States, click on a topic below.

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