What do civil rights mean to you? Ultimately they represent freedom -- the freedom to live your life without being repressed or discriminated against by either the government or private institutions. In the United States, we often think of the civil rights movement in terms of African-Americans, but other groups of people have long struggled with these issues, both here and around the world.
While slaves organized rebellions numerous times over the years, one of the most well-known was organized by a Virginia slave named Nat Turner in 1831. Turner and his supporters violently killed dozens of slave owners and their families, and as many as 200 slaves ultimately died. While the rebellion resulted in stricter laws concerning slaves' education and assembly across the American South, many historians consider it a turning point in the slaves' struggle for freedom.
While some states granted voting rights to women early on in the history of the United States, it was not legal at the time the Constitution was ratified in 1789. In 1848, 300 men and women (including women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pictured here) met in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to author the Declaration of Sentiments, which calls for an end to discrimination against women. This was the first women's rights convention.
The Underground Railroad, was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves to escape to Canada or free states. Most active between 1830 and 1860, this "railroad" allowed as many as 100,000 slaves to escape (Harriet Tubman, pictured here, was perhaps its most famous "conductor"). While this seems like a small number given the millions of slaves in the South, its existence had a powerful effect on both slaves and slave owners. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which decreed that escaped slaves in any state had to be returned to their owners, also put the issue of slavery in the backyards of Northerners.
In 1857, the Supreme Court heard a case in which a slave named Dred Scott (pictured here) sued for both his freedom and that of his family. Scott based his claims on the fact that he and his family had lived with their owners in states where slavery was illegal. The court decided that Scott could not legally sue because he was not a citizen of the United States. It also ruled that no person of African-American descent was a citizen, nor could he or she become one.
In 1863, two years into the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation. This order freed all slaves living in the Confederate States of America that were still in rebellion. It did not free all slaves in the United States, outlaw slavery or confer citizenship on the freed slaves. However, the order did make ending slavery a central goal of the war.
Most states that were not affected by Lincoln's order had banned slavery by the end of the Civil War, with the exception of Delaware and Kentucky. Slavery was officially abolished in the entire country when the 13th Amendment went into effect in 1865. A year later, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which extended numerous civil rights to freed slaves. These included a declaration that anyone born in the United States (with the exception of Native Americans and people "subject to a foreign power") was a citizen.
The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 to combat the laws passed by states and local governments that compromised freed slaves' civil rights. It overruled the Dred Scott Decision, more clearly defining citizenship. The amendment also stated that no state or local government could deny a person's civil and political rights. Although it covered some of the same ground as the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the amendment ensured that the act could not be overturned by the Supreme Court or a Congressional vote. It did, however, define voters as male.
The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan had been formed in 1865 by Confederate veterans. Members used violence to intimidate freed slaves, as well as to assert their belief in white supremacy. In 1881, Tennessee became the first state to pass "Jim Crow" laws, which relegated African-Americans to second-class citizen status and legalized segregation. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that these state segregation laws were constitutional as long as both facilities were equal. In reality, the services and facilities made available for African-Americans were either vastly inferior or nonexistent.
The continued violence, racism and discrimination experienced by African-Americans spurred the formation (W.E.B. Du Bois was a founding member) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Its stated mission was "to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination." Due to Jim Crow laws and intimidation by groups such as the KKK, a huge migration of African-Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North began in the 1910s.
Some African-Americans sought more radical solutions to the continued struggle for equality. The back-to-Africa movement, which encouraged African-Americans to return to Africa, had existed before the Civil War. It gained ground again in the 1910s, as those who migrated to the North from the South sometimes found themselves no better off financially or socially. Jamaican Marcus Garvey (pictured here) founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916 and sought to develop the African country of Liberia as a homeland (it had been previously founded by freed slaves).
In addition to numerous women's rights organizations founded by the likes of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone (pictured here), there were also groups working against women's suffrage or against some aspects of the various platforms in existence at the time. The Southern States Women's Suffrage Conference, for example, was formed in 1913 to lobby just for white women to have the ability to vote.
The National Women's Party was formed in 1915 to focus on getting an amendment passed that constitutionally granted women the right to vote. By contrast, other organizations, such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, worked on getting individual states to allow women's suffrage. In 1920, the 19th Amendment (also known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment) was ratified, giving women the vote (although, as this suffrage victory" map from 1920 demonstrates, there were still some holdouts).
The first civil rights organization not focused on a single group of people was founded in 1920. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeks to defend the civil liberties guaranteed to United States citizens by the Constitution, its amendments and various laws and acts. At times, the organizations and issues supported by the ACLU may seem contradictory: It supported the NAACP's work to end racial discrimination but also defended the right of the KKK to peaceably assemble.
The Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1923. It stated that equal rights cannot be infringed upon by any state or by the federal government based on a person's sex. Advocates argued that this potential amendment would take the protections of the 19th Amendment further by protecting women from any discrimination (not just in voting). Although it was put forward in every session of Congress until 1982, ultimately the ERA did not pass. Some women's rights advocates opposed it because they worried how it would affect labor protections.
The United States was far from alone in discriminating based on race. Apartheid in South Africa, which began in 1948 and lasted until 1994, oppressed native African populations and institutionalized white supremacy. After increasing violence and unrest in the country, President Frederik Willem de Klerk moved to end the practice of apartheid. Nelson Mandela (pictured here), an anti-apartheid activist who spent decades in jail, won the first multiracial, fully democratic election in the country
Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, paved the way for a new era in the civil rights movement. After ruling more than 50 years earlier that state-legislated segregation was legal, the Court decided that there was no such thing as "separate but equal." States with segregation laws on the books were found to be in violation of the 14th Amendment. The case was argued for the plaintiff by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, who was himself appointed to the Supreme Court in 1967.
In 1955, Rosa Parks (pictured here), a seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, refused to give up her city bus seat to a white person. This kicked off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott. As African-Americans made up most of the bus riders, this had a major financial impact on the city. Under nationwide pressure, a federal district court ruled that the bus segregation was unconstitutional. This victory brought attention to Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the civil rights movement.
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr., a minister from Atlanta, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The SCLC sought to end all segregation through nonviolent actions such as boycotts and marches. Although segregation in schools was ruled unconstitutional, it continued on in some states. That same year, a high school in Little Rock, Ark., was forcibly integrated. The governor used the state National Guard to initially block nine African-American students from entering, but President Eisenhower sent Army soldiers to force the issue.
In 1960, four students in Greensboro, N.C., led a sit-in at a "whites only" lunch counter in a Woolworth's department store. The sit-ins spread to other lunch counters (like this one in Oklahoma), towns and cities, which led, in most cases, to integration of those places. The following year, civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders tested new desegregation rulings regarding interstate travel by riding buses in the South. They were beaten by violent mobs that included members of the KKK and local police, and many were arrested.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. More than 200,000 supporters heard him deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Considered one of the best speeches of the 20th century, it was a defining moment in the civil rights movement. The following year, King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
: In 1965, the SCLC led three separate marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to protest discriminatory voter registration practices. The first became known as "Bloody Sunday," as 600 marchers were beaten and gassed by police. The march received media coverage, prompting President Truman to introduce a bill that became the Voting Rights Act. This act prohibited states from setting requirements or prerequisites for voting registration that had long prevented African-Americans from registering, such as literacy tests.
These hard-won victories didn't spell an end to racial tensions. There were numerous race riots, including a 1965 riot in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that resulted in thousands of injuries and more than 30 deaths. Widespread unemployment, bad living conditions and continued racism influenced many of these riots. The next year, the Black Panther Party formed. Its initial goals were to protect African-Americans from brutality, but the organization was also revolutionary and militant.
In 1966, feminist activist Betty Friedan (pictured here), Shirley Chisholm and Pauli Murray, the first female, black Episcopalian priest, founded the National Organization for Women. Its goal is to secure educational, political and professional equality for all women. NOW promoted the creation of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and works today against homophobia, racism and sexism.
More riots followed when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968. James Earl Ray, a supporter of segregationist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, ultimately pled guilty to the assassination and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. That same year, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress. In 1972, she also became the first African-American to run for president as a member of a major party.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 are considered to be the starting point for the gay rights movement in the United States. The Stonewall Inn, a bar popular with the gay community in Greenwich Village, was raided by police (a common practice). This time, however, the patrons refused to comply and fought back against mistreatment. A few years later, there were gay rights groups across the country as well as in Canada.
Although the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had existed since just after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as a federal law enforcement organization, it was known as a "toothless tiger" by many civil rights groups. The EEOC could process reports of discrimination in the workplace, but lacked the authority to enforce the laws. The 1972 Equal Employment Opportunity Act extended the protections in the Civil Rights Act to more people, including state and local government employees. It also gave the EEOC the ability to sue both private businesses and government organizations for discriminatory workplace practices
Title IX, an amendment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, stated that nobody can be excluded from participating in any program or service in education or other federally funded activity on the basis of sex. With the failure of the ERA, the women's rights movement had also slowed down. Title IX revitalized the movement and had a lasting effect on women in high school and college sports.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. It was first observed three years later as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 1984 marked the second time that an African-American made a bid for a presidential nomination, as activist Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination. He lost to Walter Mondale, who chose Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential candidate, as his running mate.
Another Civil Rights Act went into effect in 1991, which made it easier for employees to sue their employers for discrimination in the workplace. The early 1990s also saw an incident in which four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted of using excessive force, despite videotape evidence that appeared to show them beating DUI suspect Rodney King. This result triggered riots in Los Angeles for six days (pictured here) and smaller riots in other cities around the country.
Clarifications of existing employment discrimination laws kept pregnant women from being fired solely for their condition, but the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 also provided for women to take unpaid leave during a pregnancy if necessary, as well as after the baby was born. In addition, the FMLA also required employers to allow employees time off for personal or family illness, adoption, foster care or military service.
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a policy concerning gays in the military that lasted from 1993 to 2011. While it banned discriminating against or mistreating any gay soldier, it also prohibited openly gay people from serving in the military. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. It defined marriage as an institution between a man and a woman and does not require any state to legally recognize a same-sex relationship. Some states have legalized same-sex marriage or recognize those that have been performed in other states.
One of the most recent milestones in the history of civil rights in the United States occurred when Barack Obama, a biracial candidate, was elected the 44th President on Nov. 4, 2008.
In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Although there had been a federal hate crime law on the books since 1969, it did not provide for crimes motivated by the victim's sexual orientation, gender identity or gender. The previous law also only protected people engaged in specific activities like going to school or voting. The act was named for Matthew Shepard, a man murdered because he was gay, and James Byrd Jr., an African American man murdered by white supremacists.
Women in many industrialized countries still do not have the civil rights we take for granted, such as the right to vote. In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive (although they can purchase cars), leave the home without a male guardian, hold high office or vote. King Abdullah has stated that in the 2015 elections, women will be able to both run and vote. However, these bans are not necessarily law but are part of the religious culture.