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The Origins of Civil Rights: History & Overview

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  • 0:02 Civil Rights
  • 1:30 Civil Rights Movement
  • 3:24 Civil Rights Act
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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Most people know that a major victory for civil rights was won when the slaves were freed after the American Civil War, but that was just the beginning. In this lesson, we'll look at civil rights and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Civil Rights

Imagine that you are living in a big house with many other people. Everyone has their own room, and everyone shares the kitchen. But there's a problem: while others get nice large rooms with air conditioning, your room is small and dingy and unventilated. While others get to use restrooms in the house, you have to go outside. And lately, your roommates have even forbidden you from using the kitchen, so you have to go hungry.

The feelings of frustration and hurt that you probably feel with regards to your roommates are not unlike the feelings that many African-Americans felt after the Civil War in America.

Civil rights are defined as rights to personal liberty established by the United States Constitution and congressional acts. When civil rights are being discussed, it is typically in regards to minority groups. These rights are considered basic things that all citizens should have at the minimum, such as the right to vote or the right to fair treatment from the law.

Generally, civil rights protect our freedoms from discrimination or repression. There are many ways that an individual can be discriminated against. A person could be discriminated against based on his or her race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or national origin. Civil rights protect a person's ability to exercise his or her right to religion, speech, privacy, and movement, regardless of who he or she is.

Civil Rights Movement

As we said, civil rights are basic human rights that all people have, regardless of race, gender, or other factors. It is a general term that simply means the rights to equality that everyone has. However, when people talk about the Civil Rights Movement, they are generally talking about the specific movement to gain equality for blacks, which took place between the Civil War and the second half of the 20th century.

Remember when your roommates excluded you from the rest of the house and kept you from using the restroom or kitchen? After the Civil War, many states instituted Jim Crow Laws, which made segregation by race the law.

As a result, many buses, restaurants, hotels, and public establishments offered service only to white people or they offered better service to whites than to blacks. African-Americans felt frustrated and hurt by the way that they were being shut out of places like movie theaters, restaurants, and public swimming pools, or parks.

Worse, though, were the opportunities that they lost due to segregation. After the Civil War, slaves across the south needed and wanted the chance to become educated and to find a good job to support their families. But segregated schools and fewer jobs for blacks meant that they often struggled financially.

In response, African-Americans worked to change the laws so that they could be given equal opportunity. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X fought for black civil rights, and their work collectively became known as the Civil Rights Movement.

Slowly, the movement's supporters began to have small successes. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, a United States Supreme Court case that ended segregation in schools, was decided in 1954. Sit-ins and demonstrations began leading to desegregated restaurants and buses.

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