Georgetown Law
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.

Obergefell v. Hodges

Same-sex marriage has been controversial for decades, but tremendous progress was made across the United States as states individually began to lift bans to same-sex marriage.  Before the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges576 U.S. ___ (2015) was decided, over 70% of states and the District of Columbia already recognized same-sex marriage, and only 13 states had bans.  Fourteen same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners had since passed away, claimed Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee violated the Fourteenth Amendment by denying them the right to marry or have their legal marriages performed in another state recognized. 

All district courts found in favor of the plaintiffs.  On appeal, the cases were consolidated, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that the states' bans on same-sex marriage and refusal to acknowledge legal same-sex marriages in other jurisdictions were not unconstitutional.  

Among several arguments, the respondents asserted that the petitioners were not seeking to create a new and nonexistent right to same-sex marriage.  Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted that, "while that approach may have been appropriate for the asserted right there involved (physician-assisted suicide), it is inconsistent with the approach this Court has used in discussing other fundamental rights, included marriage and intimacy."  He outlined that:

Loving did not ask about a "right to interracial marriage", Turner did not ask about a "right of inmates to marry", and Zablocki did not ask about a "right of fathers with unpaid child support duties to marry."  Rather, each case inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right ... That principle applies here.  If rights were defined by who exercised them in the past, then received practices could serve as their own continued justification and new groups could not invoke rights once denied.

Efforts to quantify the impact of Obergefell include a June 2016 report drafted by the Williams Institute: UCLA School of Law.  According to the report, "weddings by same-sex couples have generated an estimated $1.58 billion boost to the national economy, and $102 million in state and local sales tax revenue since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision extending marriage equality nationwide in June 2015."  Over 130,000 same-sex couples married, bringing the total of same-sex couples in the U.S. to nearly 500,000.  

In Obergefell, Justice Kennedy concluded:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideal of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded form one of civilization's oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right. 

Library Resources 

  • Love unites us: winning the freedom to marry in America, KF539 .L68 2016 
  • American constitutionalism, marriage, and the family: Obergefell v. Hodges and U.S. v. Windsor in context, KF229.W56 A44 2016
  • Love wins: the lovers and lawyers who fought the landmark case for marriage equality, KF229.O24 C46 2016


SCOTUS Strikes Down Same Sex Marriage Ban

Marriage Equality Rally