U.S. & Great Britain's Civil Rights Histories

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  • 0:05 Civil Rights Across…
  • 0:50 Basic Questions of…
  • 2:10 Voting Rights in the…
  • 3:42 Race in the U.S. and U.K.
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When most of us think of civil rights, we get mental images of events in the United States. However, the British have had their civil rights issues as well. Learn more about the evolution of civil rights in both of these countries.

Civil Rights across the Atlantic

In the United States, we have a tendency to think of a civil rights movement as something that is really about America. Granted, ours was especially drawn out, and it took a great deal of work before we came close to getting it right. From meetings for women's suffrage to boycotts in the Deep South for racial justice, the struggle for civil rights has been and continues to be a varied journey.

But have you ever stopped to think about how other countries dealt with the issue of civil rights? In fact, many nations have undergone civil rights movements, including the United Kingdom. In that country, being much older than the U.S., the process of gaining civil rights was much longer. Yet in some respects, the movement toward civil rights in Britain mirrored what was going on across the Atlantic.

Basic Questions of Civil Rights

But wait, what are the most crucial questions of civil rights? In order to really examine the issue, we must be sure to remove our biases about the issue from an American perspective. For many of us, civil rights means race. After all, when we think of the civil rights movement, we think of African Americans during the 1960s trying to gain equal protections under the law. But it's that phrase of 'equal protections under the law' that is important. Even today, the issue of just what should be equally protected under the law is hotly debated in the United States, and in the United Kingdom, it took quite a while to get to that point.

That's because in the United Kingdom it was class that for years determined one's civil rights. Money alone didn't cut it. One had to go to the right schools, have the right friends, and go to the right church on Sunday. Being rich was simply assumed. Even the Magna Carta, the great document signed in 1215 that was supposed to subject the king to his vassals, was only good if you were part of the 10% of the population that it applied to.

So how did we get from that society to today's vibrant, open one? Well, in a democratic society, one of the most crucial civil rights is the right to vote and, as we will see, both the U.S. and the UK have had major struggles over this issue.

Voting Rights in the U.S. vs. UK

In the United Kingdom, voting goes back hundreds of years. In 1689, Parliament passed a law stating that it was in charge, not the monarch. But who got to choose Parliament? For years, it was a closed system in which only a few people could actually vote. Back then, it was literally possible to purchase an election by bribing a few dozen people. It was only in 1918 that all men over 21 gained the right to vote in Britain and then in 1928, when all people over 21 could vote. Later, legislation reduced that age to 18.

In the United States, all white men could vote within a few years of the founding of the country, while all male citizens were permitted to vote, regardless of race or color, with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 (Native Americans were conveniently left out of this equation, however, due to the fact that they were not considered citizens of the U.S.). Women finally gained the vote in 1920.

However, the right of African American citizens to vote was still heavily limited by the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South, which sought to keep freed slaves away from the polls. Practices like poll taxes, which made people pay money to vote, limited participation among minorities, as did literacy tests, which forbade people who couldn't read from voting. These measures were largely pointed against non-white people. It was only with the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that all people, regardless of race, effectively gained the right to vote.

Race in the U.S. and UK

Race played a big role in the development of civil rights in the United States, and while class was the main issue in the UK, that is not to mean that race didn't matter. Even though United Kingdom abolished slavery in 1833, several decades before the United States did, racial minorities remained relatively poor in the UK, and when economic downturns happened, a lack of anti-discrimination laws meant that employers could fire racial minorities first. In fact, a bus company in Bristol instituted a ban on hiring anyone who wasn't white. In the 1960s, the UK government passed legislation to make such discrimination illegal.

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