Civil Liberties and Civil Rights for AP U.S. Government (page 3)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Civil Rights

Civil rights are guaranteed by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was added to the Constitution after the Civil War to prevent states from discriminating against former slaves and to protect former slaves' rights. The courts recognize that some forms of discrimination may be valid (preventing those under 21 from consuming alcohol) and have therefore devised the rational basis test to determine if the discrimination has a legitimate purpose. The courts have also developed the strict scrutiny test, a much stricter standard. If the discrimination reflects prejudice, the courts automatically classify it as suspect and require the government to prove a compelling reason for the discrimination. For example, if a city had separate schools for different races, the city would have to prove how this serves a compelling public interest.

The Civil Rights Movement

After the Civil War three amendments were passed to ensure the rights of the former slaves.

  • The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment defined citizenship to include the former slaves and provided for due process and equal protection, which were used by the Supreme Court to apply the Bill of Rights to the state and local governments.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment provided that individuals could not be denied the right to vote based on race or the fact that they were once a slave.
  • Until the 1950s and 1960s states continued to use discriminatory practices to prevent African Americans from participating in the political processes.

  • Black codes were state laws passed to keep former slaves in a state of political bondage. The laws included literacy tests, poll taxes, registration laws, and white primaries.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1875 outlawed racial discrimination in public places such as hotels, theaters, and railroads but required African Americans to take their cases to federal court, a time-consuming and costly endeavor. The act was ruled unconstitutional in 1883.
  • Jim Crow laws were laws designed to segregate the races in schools, public transportation, and hotels.
  • In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court upheld the Jim Crow laws by allowing separate facilities for the different races if those facilities were equal. This created the separate but equal doctrine.
  • With Executive Order 8802 (1941) Franklin Roosevelt banned racial discrimination in the defense industry and government offices.
  • With Executive Order 9981 (1948) Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces.
  • In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision, ruling that separate but equal is unconstitutional.
  • In Brown v. Board of Education II (1955) the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools "with all deliberate speed."
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Civil Rights Division within the Justice Department and made it a crime to prevent a person from voting in federal elections.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in employment and in places of public accommodation, outlawed bias in federally funded programs, and created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • The Twenty-Fourth Amendment (1964) outlawed poll taxes in federal elections.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed federal registrars to register voters and outlawed literacy tests and other discriminatory tests in voter registration.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1991 made it easier for job applicants and employees to bring suit against employers with discriminatory hiring practices.

Other Minorities

With the successes of the African American civil rights movement, other minorities have also pressed to end discrimination. Hispanics, American Indians, Asian Americans, women, and people with disabilities have all joined in the quest for protections from discriminatory actions.

Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Americans is a term often used to describe people in the United States who have a Spanish-speaking heritage, including Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Central and South Americans. Today, the Hispanic population is the fastest growing minority in America.

Although the number of Hispanics elected to public office has increased since the 1970s, their progress continues to be hampered by unequal educational opportunities and language barriers. Civil rights action on behalf of Hispanics has concentrated on health care for undocumented immigrants, affirmative action, admission of more Hispanic students to state colleges and universities, and redistricting plans that do not discriminate against Hispanic Americans.

Native Americans

More than two million Native Americans live on reservations in the United States. As a result of discrimination, poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and drug abuse are common problems. Lack of organization has hampered Native American attempts to gain political power. With the formation of militant organizations (National Indian Youth Council and American Indian Movement) and protests (siege at Wounded Knee), Native Americans have brought attention to their concerns. A 1985 Supreme Court ruling upheld treaty rights of Native American tribes.

The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (1988) allowed Native Americans to have gaming operations (casinos) on their reservations, creating an economic boom in many tribes. In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, encouraging the continuation of native languages and culture.

Asian Americans

Discrimination against Asians arriving in the United States began almost immediately as Asian workers began competing for jobs. Beginning in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act (and other similar acts) limited the number of Asians permitted to enter the United States. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, people of Japanese descent were forced into relocation camps. The Supreme Court upheld these actions until 1944, when they declared the internments to be illegal in Korematsu v. U.S. In 1988 Congress appropriated funds to compensate former camp detainees or their survivors.

The Women's Movement

Throughout much of American history, women have not been given the same rights as men.

  • The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote.
  • The Equal Pay Act (1963) made it illegal to base an employee's pay on race, gender, religion, or national origin. This also affected the African American civil rights movement.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned job discrimination on the basis of gender.
  • In Reed v. Reed (1971) the Supreme Court ruled against a law that discriminated against women deciding that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment denied unreasonable classifications based on gender.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Act (1972) prohibited gender discrimination in hiring, firing, promotions, pay, and working conditions.
  • The Omnibus Education Act (1972) required schools to give all boys and girls an equal opportunity to participate in sports programs.
  • The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974) prohibited discrimination against women seeking credit from banks, finance agencies, or the government and made it illegal to ask about a person's gender or marital status on a credit application.
  • The Women's Equity in Employment Act (1991) required employers to justify gender discriminations in hiring and job performance.

People with Disabilities

  • The Rehabilitation Act (1973) prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in federal programs.
  • The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975) guarantees that children with disabilities will receive an "appropriate" education.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) forbids employers and owners of public accommodations from discriminating against people with disabilities (must make facilities wheelchair accessible, etc.). The act created the Telecommunications Relay Service, which allows hearing and speech-impaired people access to telephone communications.


Prior to the 1960s and 1970s few people were willing to discuss their sexual preferences in relation to same-sex relationships. After a riot following a police raid of a gay and lesbian bar in 1969, the gay power movement gained momentum. Organizations such as the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front began exerting pressure and influence on state legislatures to repeal laws prohibiting homosexual conduct. As a result of the growth of the gay rights movement, the Democratic party has included protection of gay rights as part of its platform, and several states have passed laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations. In Romer v. Evans (1996) the Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado constitutional amendment invalidating state and local laws that protected homosexuals from discrimination was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Elderly

Discrimination has also been an issue with the elderly. Job discrimination made it difficult for older people to find work. As a result, in 1967 Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, prohibiting employers from discriminating against individuals over the age of 40 on the basis of age.

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