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Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Contents

Credits

  • Heather Casey - Int'l & Foreign Law Reference Librarian
  • Kristina Alayan - Head of Reference
  • Rachel Jorgensen - Reference Librarian
  • Barbara Monroe - Reference Librarian

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Civil Rights versus Human Rights

What is the difference between a civil right and a human right? Simply put, human rights are rights one acquires by being alive. Civil rights are rights that one obtains by being a legal member of a certain political state. There are obviously several liberties that overlap between these two categories, but the breakdown of rights between human and civil is roughly as follows:

Human rights include:

  • the right to life
  • the right to education
  • protection from torture
  • freedom of expression
  • the right to a free trial

Civil rights within the United States include:

  • protection from discrimination
  • the right to free speech
  • the right to due process
  • the right to equal protection
  • the right against self-incrimination

It is important to note that civil rights will change based on where a person claims citizenship because civil rights are, in essence, an agreement between the citizen and the nation or state that the citizen lives within. From an international perspective, international organizations and courts are not as likely to intervene and take action to enforce a nation's violation of its own civil rights, but are more likely to respond to human rights violations. While human rights should be universal in all countries, civil rights will vary greatly from one nation to the next. No nation may rightfully deprive a person of a human right, but different nations can grant or deny different civil rights. Thus, civil rights struggles tend to occur at local or national levels and not at the international level. At the international stage, we focus on the violation of human rights.

This guide will focus on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States. While some of these rights, like the right to education, certainly overlap with human rights, we treat them as civil rights in most academic conversations. Typically, the reason used to justify a right to equal education or another human right is grounded in a civil right of due process or equal protection.