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Civil Rights: The Issue of Equality for Our Citizens
Since the time of the court ruling in 1898 which established "separate but equal" facilities based on race, civil rights in the United States has undergone major changes. Starting with the federally enforced integration of schools by the Supreme Court in 1954, citizens in this nation have fought for and found increasing amounts of equality under the law. Today, there are laws that ensure that a citizen cannot be denied entrance to the school of their choice because of their race, that all citizens can vote, and that employers cannot discriminate in either their hiring practices or their treatment of a worker after hire because of their race, sex, religion, national origin, or more recently, disability.

There have been famous people who have advocated civil rights through the years including Rosa Parks, the famous orator Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidents such as Kennedy and Johnson who passed legislation that promoted civil rights. In modern times, there are groups dedicated to the advocacy and protection of the rights of minorities and those who have suffered discrimination. And affirmative action policies have helped to ensure that the Constitutional guarantee of equality under the law is not just words, but policies put into action in the workplace and educational institutions of our country.

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A Brief History of Civil Rights

The first major step in civil rights in our nation occurred with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in our county in 1865. But in response, many states created "black codes" intended to limit the rights of black citizens who were newly freed. In response, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1868, which prohibited limiting any citizen's constitutional rights under the law without a due process of law, and enabled the federal government to oversee the Reconstruction policies in the sometimes reluctant states after the Civil War.

In 1892, the Supreme court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson created the precedent of "separate but equal" facilities for black and whites in the United States. But in 1954, this doctrine was changed when the Supreme Court ruled Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) case which asked for integration of the schools. The court found that the "separate but equal" policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment, and over the years since schools were integrated.

Other Civil Rights cases were landmarks as well, including the refusal of Rosa Parks in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus to a white man who wanted it (this eventually helped lead to the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). During the 1960s, students on campuses became involved in petitioning for increased civil rights, including sit ins in Nashville, Tennessee and Greensboro, North Carolina at lunch counters that formerly served "whites only". Another group known as the Freedom Rides rode interstate buses that had formerly carried only whites across state lines. And James Meredith challenged the University of Mississippi which had accepted him, then withdrew his admission when they discovered his race (he had left the "race" section blank on his application). The U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state could not deny admission to an academically qualified state citizen.

Birmingham, Alabama, which was still highly segregated in the 1960s, became a focus of several major civil rights demonstrations and marches. And in 1963, over 200,000 demonstrators visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in one of the largest civil rights gatherings in our nation's history that helped support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The civil rights movement has helped to restore rights to African-Americans and minorities, including desegregation of the school system, and ensuring the right to vote during elections. And on Sunday March 7, in Selma Alabama, a march to the state capital began that was met with violence by the police. Several other marches from Selma were organized in the month of March, which helped to pass the voting rights law which ensured equality in voting.

Martin Luther King: A Leader who Spoke Out

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a famous civil rights leader who was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His early years were heavily influenced by his grandfather, the Rev. A.D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church who founded the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. His father was also a large influence, since his father also became a pastor and civil rights leader. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually followed in their footsteps, while forging a new path for civil rights.

He was an advocate of using non-violent strategies to accomplish social change during a period when feelings were volatile over the issue of civil rights. He also believed that the church could become an agent for social change, and he became a minister and eventually received his doctorate in theology in 1955. He first ministered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

He also was elected the president of Montgomery Improvement Association, and his dedication to helping others became evident as he fought for civil rights. Dr. King became nationally known because of his excellent speaking skills and personal courage in the face of threats because of his stance on civil rights issues.

His work in part helped to change the segregation laws that were active in Alabama in the mid-1950s. He also became a proponent of black voting rights. In 1959, he moved to Atlanta Georgia and helped pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church (where his father and grandfather had been pastors before him). He also spoke at the famous march to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, where he gave his well-known "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize. And in 1968 he helped to spearhead the Poor Peoples campaign which addressed economic problems for African-Americans. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated while helping with a garbage worker's strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

Organizations that Protect Civil Rights

Civil rights is a complex issue for a nation that is comprised of a large diversity of people. In order to help ensure that the individual rights of citizens are maintained, and to stop discriminatory practices, various groups have arisen to help with advocacy (both political and practical) and to give a voice to those who have suffered discrimination in the past. These groups also help to ensure that civil rights laws, which may be legislated but aren't always acted on, are enforced.

Often they will help an individual or give counsel on what to do if a person's civil liberties are being bypassed. In recent years, these laws have expanded and now include not just race, national origin, religion, or marital status, but also encompass sex and disability issues as well.

Some of the better known groups include:
  • African -American Institute: an advocacy group for African Americans
  • American Association for Affirmative Action (AAAA) (one of the older established groups)
  • American Association of Retired Persons (AARP): who fight age discrimination
  • American Civil Liberties Union: who offers legal counsel and aid to citizens who are discriminated against or whose civil liberties have been bypassed
  • Anti-defamation League: protects the civil liberties of Jewish members of society
  • Japanese-American Citizen's League helps ensure that this group is not discriminated against and promotes good relations between citizens and their country
  • Children's Defense Fund advocates the rights of children
  • Disability Rights Advocates supports equality and fair treatment for those with disabilities
  • League of United Latin-American Citizens is one of the oldest and most respected groups representing this ethnic group
  • The League of Women Voters also advocates women's issues in our country
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created in 1909, this groups advocates fair and equal treatment for all citizens regardless of race or color.
  • National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) protects and advocates the rights of native Americans in our country.
Fair Employment Practices: Stopping Discrimination

In 1941, president Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This committee was created to promote fair employment practices and to help increase the pool of employable citizens during the busy war years. The program was terminated in 1946 (after the end of WWII). But before this, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, and then the Fourteenth Amendment limited the power of the federal and state governments to discriminate against individuals, and state that all citizens are entitled to due process and protection under the law. This means an employee cannot be terminated or discriminated against and their rights bypassed without a fair trial.

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act prohibited discrimination in wages based on sex. This means that women are to be paid equally for equal work done. And in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed, in which Title VII of the act prohibited employers with more than 15 employees who work across state lines, labor unions, and employment agencies from discriminating against employees on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, or religion.

In 1964, the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created to help advocate fair and neutral employment practices in hiring and to prevent discrimination against job applicants because of their race, color, sex, marital status, religion, or national origin, age or disability. And more recently, there has been a trend towards including sexual orientation as well. The EEOC investigates charges of discrimination or harassment in the workplace, which can include the type of job assignment given, early termination, lack of promotion to a highly qualified candidate, or the type of compensation given, as well as unfair hiring practices. The commission will attempt mediation/ conciliation, but if resolution can't be reached, the commission will bring the suit to Federal Court, since the laws covering employment discrimination are either federal or state statutes.

And in 1990, the American with Disabilities Act was passed, which prevents barring a person with a disability from reasonable accommodation that would allow employment (such as wheelchair ramps and bathroom facilities) It also prohibits discrimination against an employee by federal or interstate agencies because of a physical or mental handicap.. And in more recent years, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prevents discrimination against workers over age 40 in the workplace.

The concept of affirmative action has resulted in recent years, in which potential barriers to equal employment opportunities are identified, and where recruitment is encouraged from a wide pool of applicants (with goals set to measure how well this is being done.

Civil Rights Today

Civil rights today is an ongoing issue in a nation that is composed of a diverse variety of citizens. Our country is known around the world for attempting to protect the individual rights of its citizens, and for promoting fair and equal hiring practices.

Current issues today include ensuring that laws that do protect rights are actually enforced and carried out. The concept of minority has increased to include women, those who face a physical or mental challenge, those over age 40, and a person's sexual orientation, as well as race, color, and religion.

For instance, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which amended the 1964 Act, was created to not only promote fair hiring practices of women and minorities, but to also prevent post-hire discrimination in the workplace. And affirmative action is now a byword for legislation that promotes fair hiring practices for a diverse workforce, and ensures equal chances of obtaining a quality education for qualified applicants.

The Supreme Court and Congress today play an important part in maintaining civil rights for all citizens, as Congress passes legislation to protect the rights of our citizens, and the Supreme Court decisions interpret how these laws are to be enacted. And in recent years, racial equality has increased, with the number of black and minority students increasing at the college level, and an increase in the number of minority-owned businesses.

Civil Rights today has also entered the international arena, as the United States struggles with the issue of Human Rights around the world, and as immigrants from countries which violate these rights seek sanctuary here. The United States joined in covenant with other nations around the world when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sponsored by the United Nations. This covenant among other things prohibits genocide, the taking of life without a fair trial, and capital punishment for minors. It also prohibits coercion of individuals and protects religious liberty. By taking this step, our nation showed that it recognizes that civil rights is a worldwide issue, and not only a national problem, as our country moves towards interdependence with other nations in the world community.
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