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Civil rights

Civil rights, rights and privileges enjoyed by citizens. A distinction is sometimes made between civil rights and civil liberties: Civil rights must be granted by the government (for example, the right to vote), while civil liberties are inalienable individual freedoms the government may be prohibited from restraining. In the United States “civil rights” also includes the rights of individuals, particularly members of minority groups, to nondis-criminatory treatment. The concept of civil rights arose in the Roman Empire, whose courts protected the rights of Roman citizens against arbitrary acts by the government. In the Middle Ages nobles issued charters to their followers to protect against other nobles and the king. The rise of absolute monarchs in France, Spain, and other European nations ended many of the civil rights of their subjects. In England, however, the nobles, and later the House of Commons and the common law courts, defended and extended the rights of the people against the crown. The Magna Carta of 1215, under which the king granted specific rights to his lords in return for their support, and the Bill of Rights in 1689 established a basis in common law for the inviolable liberties of individual citizens. Many U.S. and Canadian concepts of civil rights and individual liberty derive from the English example. The so-called natural law theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, taught that the natural law, reflecting divine law, confers certain rights upon the individual that cannot be legitimately taken away by governments. These ideas are enshrined in the famous words of the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights…”

With some exceptions, civil rights in American colonial times were often restricted, particularly in matters of religion. The Declaration of Rights and Liberties, passed in 1774 by the Continental Congress, was an important part of the agitation against the British government preceding the American Revolution. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which provided for settlement and organization of new territories, established certain liberties for settlers in the new area, including the right of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and religious freedom. The basis for the civil rights of all Americans is the Constitution, whose first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, provide for fundamental liberties: freedom of speech, assembly, the press, and religion; protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; prohibition of double jeopardy and self-incrimination; and the right to a speedy and public trial. The 13th amendment (1865) abolished slavery, and the 14th (1868) established the standards of due process of law and equal protection of the laws of all citizens. The 15th amendment (1870) states that no male citizen could be denied the right to vote because of his race. The rights of women lagged behind those of former slaves: Women did not receive the right to vote in federal elections until 1920 (the 19th amendment).

The massive civil rights legislation of the Reconstruction era was followed by a prolonged legislative silence on racial discrimination. Moreover, the constitutional amendments and civil rights measures enacted by Congress after the Civil War were largely negated by 2 Supreme Court decisions—the first holding that only the states were prohibited from discriminating, while individuals were not (1883), the second establishing the criterion of “separate but equal” facilities as fulfilling legal requirements (1896). In 1954 the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” facilities a violation of civil rights and ordered public schools to be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” In 1957, after years of effort by civil rights activists, Congress set up the Civil Rights Commission to investigate discrimination, established a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute violations of federal law, and empowered the attorney general to bring suit against any person or civic body that denied another's voting rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 outlawed infringements of voting rights and ordered all the armed forces desegregated. The 24th amendment (1964) outlawed poll taxes; literacy tests as a means of racial discrimination were brought under control in 1965 legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and by employers or labor unions. It also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to ensure that persons were not barred from employment on the grounds of race, religion, or sex. Many women have since successfully sued for their rights under this act. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 outlawed discrimination in the sale or rental of housing and established the protection of the law for those exercising their civil rights or urging others to do so. In 1970 the 1965 Voting Rights Act was renewed and extended, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. During this same period major strides were being made to ensure and extend individual civil liberties. The most far-reaching and controversial decisions were in the field of criminal procedure. The Miranda case (1966) resulted in a ruling that a citizen placed under arrest must be made aware of his or her constitutional rights and be free to exercise them; a confession obtained in violation of this rule is excluded from evidence in a court of law. The Court further established that a citizen placed under arrest must be made aware of his or her constitutional rights and be able to exercise them.

The international movement to secure civil rights for all people has been strengthened by the work of many agencies, including UNESCO, the International Labor Organization, the European Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and the International League for the Rights of Man. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the General Assembly of the United Nations (1948), includes a list of basic civil rights that should be available to all persons. In December 1965 the General Assembly approved the convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

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