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April 28, 2022

Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity

Video: Civil Rights Part 1

Video: In Part 1 of "What are Civil Rights?", Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee member Lakshmi answers several middle and high school students' questions about their Civil Rights by first answering "What are Civil Rights?" and then answering:  "What would the world be without Civil Rights?".

Video: Civil Rights Part 2

In Part 2 of " What are Civil Rights?", Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee member Lakshmi answers "How do you file a civil rights complaint and approximately how long would it take for that complaint to be processed and addressed?", asked by a high school student from California in the video above.

Video: Equity and Equality

What's the Difference Between Equity and Equality? Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice Chair Beth K. Whittenbury answers this question asked by a high school student from Pennsylvania in the video above.

Video: Youth and Civil Rights   

 "What can I do as a youth in my community to support and uphold our civil rights? Is there a way youth are able to get a voice in civil rights?"  Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee member Katari Buck answers several high school students' questions in the video above.

Video: The Job of a Civil Rights Lawyer

Chris Barrett answers the question "What do Civil Rights lawyers do?" asked by Danielle from Nevada in the video above.

Corresponding script for the video: First, to understand what a civil rights lawyer does, let’s begin by looking at the definition of “civil rights.”  What are “civil rights?”

Simply put, civil rights are rights that a person obtains by being a legal member of a certain political state.  So, for example, all citizens of a country may enjoy certain civil rights.  For a more specific example, people living in the United States have the right to free speech, the right to due process, the right to vote, and protection from discrimination, among other rights.

In the United States, we get many of our most important civil rights from federal law.  This includes the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes enacted by Congress, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

In fact, most of the lawsuits I work on involve the Civil Rights Act of 1964, particularly “Title VII” of that law.  You may be wondering what a “title” is?  Some laws are divided into parts called “titles.”  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one such law and is divided into titles.  Title VII of that law prevents employers from discriminating against job applicants or employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.  Similarly, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from discriminating against applicants or employees because of real or perceived disabilities.  Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in places of public accommodation; this is the law that requires places like restaurants, movie theaters, and schools to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.  That wheelchair ramp into your local movie theatre?  It has to comply with the standards imposed by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So now that you understand what civil rights are and where they come from, we need to consider how a lawyer becomes classified as a “civil rights lawyer.”

An important feature of civil rights is that they are enforceable rights or privileges.  This is important because what good is having all these civil rights if you can’t make sure that you can enjoy them?  Merely having the right to vote, for example, is meaningless if the government can nonetheless physically prevent you from voting.

Civil rights lawyers can make sure that you get to enjoy your civil rights.  If the government prevents you from voting, you can file a lawsuit against the government.  If you win your lawsuit, a judge can order the government to let you vote.  Civil rights lawyers can help you with that process and in similar types of lawsuits.

Civil rights lawyers work on a wide variety of cases beyond voting issues: free speech issues, housing discrimination, conditions inside prison, and discrimination in the workplace, just to name a few.  Civil rights lawyers play an important function in our society—helping people enjoy their civil rights.

Additional Questions and Answers

The Evolution of Civil Rights

These two questions ask about the evolution of civil rights and the timing of Amendments:

  • Q: Do you think the civil rights movement has ever ended, or has it just evolved? a High School Student from New Jersey
  • Q: Why were the 15th Amendment and the 19th Amendment adopted so far apart and what did it say about America at the time? a High School Student from Arkansas

A: The civil rights movement continues to evolve. Now Americans see the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, soon to be confirmed by the United States Senate, as one of nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. This is a landmark achievement in the civil rights movement in our country. The statement of equality of all persons under the rule of law is notably set forth in the founding documents of our country. In the Declaration of Independence one finds these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Yet these definitive words, stated so clearly and beautifully, were aspirational in the inception of our government as it was instituted. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was an owner of enslaved persons. The men, our “founding fathers”, who instituted this government from the consent of the people governed, created the government itself through the Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution reflected the best efforts of those men, but they were all men and all white. It was a monumental achievement in citizens governing themselves under the rule of law. What does “the rule of law” mean? It means that the power to establish the rules that the people live by is held by the people themselves by agreement. With the words in mind that all men are created equal and with certain unalienable rights, the founding fathers did the best that they could agree to do. They were also men of their time. Slavery was already long established in the colonies which would become the United States of America. Slavery accounted for the wealth and financial power of many who contributed to the formation of the country. Abolition of slavery was not part of the agreement. It also did not occur that equality and unalienable rights would be embraced for women. However, the men who secured this monumental achievement knew that time brings change. For the government to be viable and strong beyond their own present times it would need to be amendable to meet the times yet unknown. The United States Constitution has been amended 27 times. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments following the civil war (1865, 1868, and 1870) abolished slavery, defined and protected federally protected rights against state infringements, and extended voting rights. It was not until 50 years later in 1920 that voting rights were extended to women (the 19th Amendment). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It outlawed discriminatory voting practices, ended segregation in public places and schools, and banned employment discrimination based on race. As we see in the aspirational imperatives stated in the Declaration of Independence, change does not occur immediately upon recognition of the need for change. But the movement goes on as evidenced presently by the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be one of nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. The Preamble to the United States Constitution, a statement of the guiding principles for the hopes of the people to be secured under the Constitution, sets forth the intention to form a more perfect union to secure the blessings of liberty for those living and those yet to come. The civil rights movement continues as we strive to create this more perfect union. (answer was written April 6, 2022)

Age Discrimination

Q:  I have a work permit and have been applying for jobs, even though I'm qualified I believe I'm not getting offers because I'm a student. Is this discrimination? Aida from Washington, D.C.

A: Under both federal law and the law of most states, employers are prohibited from discriminating when making employment decisions like hiring. But to qualify as discrimination, the negative employment decision must have been made because of the individual’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, age, pregnancy and related medical conditions, or other legally protected classification. Being a student is not such a classification. So if an employer refuses to hire someone because they are a student, that is not unlawful employment discrimination. You might be wondering if you have been denied a job offer because the employer thinks you are too young. Although employment discrimination against young people is not prohibited by federal law (only people over 40 are protected from age discrimination), some states do protect the young against what is sometimes called “reverse” age discrimination. In those states, an employer cannot refuse to hire an otherwise qualified person because they are “too young.” But many of these laws are not applicable to those under 18. 

Civil Rights Leaders

Thank you all for your relevant and important questions. Since the three questions posed are similar in nature, they are being addressed collectively. The questions are:

  • Q: Who had the biggest impact on the Civil Rights Movement? a high school student from New Jersey
  • Q: Who are some activists that fought for people’s civil rights? Sammy from California
  • Q: What was the news and press like during the 60’s Civil Rights Movement? Who are other activists of the civil rights movement other than Martin Luther King? Leslie from Nevada

A: Depending on who you ask, the list of important civil rights leaders everyone should know about will differ. There is a tendency with history to highlight a few and the foot soldiers go unrecognized. This can leave communities waiting on another person to come save them. It’s important to note that the civil rights movement has been going on for hundreds of years in the United States and continues to evolve, even though many people think of it as starting in the 1960s.

A true analysis of the Civil Rights Movement would show many local movements with local leaders who worked for many years before people like Dr. King came on the scene to highlight and build upon what they were already doing. For example, in the Selma Voting Rights Movement, the leaders of the Dallas County Voters League, known as the Courageous 8, worked for decades before inviting Dr. King to Selma. Knowing the history in this way encourages people not to wait on another person like Dr. King to lead or do the work but that they have the power to transform their own communities. When they start the work, others will come to help. For example, Amelia Boynton is considered the Mother of the Voting Rights Movement and she began organizing in the 1920s after being encouraged by her eventual husband Samuel Boynton. In fact, Samuel Boynton’s memorial was the first mass meeting of the Selma movement at the request of Rev. Bernard Lafayette who was, himself, another important civil rights hero. He was a leader in the Nashville Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Selma Movement (the first to come and stay in Selma while turning organizing into a movement), and the Chicago Movement. Dr. King also appointed him to lead the Poor People’s Campaign. In his final conversation with Dr. King the day he was assassinated, Dr. King told Rev. Lafayette that the next battleground was to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence. Rev. Lafayette continues to dedicate his life to just that all over the world! We'd also suggest you study the work of A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, Dorothy Height, and Diane Nash, keeping in mind these are only a few of those who have had an impact on civil rights.

To answer what the news and press were like during the Civil Rights movement, the book, The Race Beat , by Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff, which won a Pulitzer, highlights the important role of the American Press duing the 1950's and 1960's.