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Civil Rights in the United States



Throughout much of U.S. history, various forms of discrimination against specific groups of people were not only tolerated, but legal. Although several constitutional amendments were enacted in the aftermath of the Civil War intending to guarantee equal civil rights to African Americans, racial discrimination and racial segregation prevented African Americans from exercising their rights. Spurred by a powerful civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 to try to ensure African Americans' civil rights. Long subjected to discrimination, women were granted the right to vote nationwide with ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and helped by subsequent laws banning employment discrimination on the basis of sex. Native Americans, who lost most of their traditional homelands as the United States expanded, began their own concerted push for equal rights in the 1960s. Persons of Latino heritage have worked to resist routine discrimination in many parts of the country. Anti-Asian prejudice resulted in long-lasting restrictions on immigration from Asia, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and contributed to the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. For most of American history, state and local laws made homosexuality illegal, but changes beginning in the 1970s and then accelerating in the early 21st century have secured more rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. Federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, have prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities.

At A Glance

  • Post–Civil War constitutional amendments abolished slavery, extended citizenship to African Americans, and established that race could not be the basis for denying a person the right to vote, but segregation laws passed subsequently, throughout the South in particular, undermined some of these protections.
  • The NAACP challenged the constitutionality of segregation in the courts, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
  • Led by Martin Luther King Jr., the African American civil rights movement used nonviolent demonstrations to push the federal government to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Ongoing issues of poverty, discrimination, and police brutality produced greater militancy and civil unrest.
  • After court decisions and legislation attacked de jure segregation in the 1960s, the African American civil rights movement met more obstacles confronting de facto segregation in education and employment outside the southern United States.
  • Despite gains, African Americans continued to experience deep inequalities, and the Black Lives Matter movement arose in the 2010s as a protest against police brutality against African Americans.
  • Decades after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which issued the first call for expanded women's rights, the women's suffrage movement achieved its goal with the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted all women the right to vote.
  • Although Congress passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex in employment and education, offering some protections to women, the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, and discrimination and sexual harassment have remained problems for women.
  • After being forced from their homelands and onto reservations, Native Americans began a push for equal rights and recognition of tribal sovereignty beginning in the 1960s.
  • Through legal and other actions, Latinos began in the mid-20th century to struggle against discriminatory laws but continue to be underrepresented in government.
  • Intense debate swirls over the matter of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are Latinos, including how to prevent further arrivals and the legal status of the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants who are in the United States.
  • As a result of anti-Asian prejudice that shaped policy for decades, federal laws banned Asian immigration and denied Asian Americans citizenship rights, and state laws limited Asian Americans' property rights.
  • The federal government forcibly relocated more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War II, for which it apologized and paid restitution in the 1980s.
  • After restrictions against Asian immigration were lifted in the mid-20th century, immigration from Asia soared.
  • Discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the United States dates to the early years of the republic, but changes beginning in the 1970s and picking up speed in the early 21st century have given members of the LGBTQ community more rights, including the right to marry.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against persons with physical or mental impairments in employment, public accommodations, and government services.