The term "civil rights" refers to the legally protected privileges that are guaranteed for all citizens within the territorial boundaries of a given nation, as distinguished from "human rights" or "natural rights," which are regarded as the universal birthrights of all people worldwide, regardless of their country of residence. The 17th-century philosopher John Locke argued that life, liberty, and property -- which he deemed natural human rights -- should be codified in civil-rights laws and protected as part of the social contract of sovereign states.
Civil-rights laws are designed to protect people against acts of discrimination in the private sphere -- in such areas as employment, housing, or education. These laws generally specify a set of characteristics that cannot be used to favor some people over others: race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and nationality. In cases where such discrimination occurs, government intervention is invoked. (Civil liberties, by contrast, are designed to eliminate, as much as possible, government influence in the private sphere.)
Civil rights became the focus of an important social movement in the United States in the mid-1950s. This movement used nonviolent protest as a means of drawing public attention to the injustices of racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans, particularly in the South. In 1964 it achieved the most important breakthrough in equal-rights legislation for blacks since the Reconstruction period (1865-1877).
Around the middle of the 20th century, there were hints that a civil-rights movement was on the horizon of American societal evolution. Membership in the NAACP increased tenfold during the World War II years, reflecting a growing awareness among both blacks and whites of the urgent need for racial justice. Two years after the war's end, Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color bar. A year later, President Harry Truman announced that segregation would be eliminated from the U.S. armed forces. Truman also appointed blacks to numerous government posts in his administration.
Many whites, particularly in the South, were reluctant to accept black Americans' ever-growing inclusion in realms that were once exclusively white. An event of historic significance occurred on December 1, 1955, when a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger (as was the Southern custom of the day) on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. In response to Ms. Parks's arrest, Martin Luther King, Jr. led Montgomery's black residents in a year-long boycott of the city's buses -- a campaign that put a great financial strain on the bus company, three-fourths of whose regular patrons were black. As the months passed, the Montgomery story grabbed headlines in a number of national newspapers, thereby raising Americans awareness about racial issues to new heights. Consequently, the flow of financial contributions to civil-rights organizations increased dramatically. Donations poured in from all over the world. Most came from church groups -- particularly black churches -- in the United States. Finally, on December 21, 1956, a court order officially desegregating Montgomery's buses took effect. "There is a new Negro in the South," a proud Dr. King declared, "with a new sense of dignity and destiny."
Civil-rights reform was on America's mind, as evidenced by a massive wave of demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These rallies were led by such organizations as the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Boycotts, sit-ins, voter-registration drives, and protest marches spread like wildfire across the South. In 1960 alone, some 70,000 students staged sit-ins in about 100 Southern cities, occupying seats in such traditionally segregated facilities as lunch counters, restaurants, and libraries.
May 1963 was a most significant month in the civil-rights movement's history. The SCLC, headed by Dr. King, had recently recruited hundreds of high-school students and trained them in the methods of nonviolent resistance. On May 2, about 1,000 of these youngsters staged an anti-segregation march in Birmingham, Alabama, where 600 of them were arrested and jailed. The next day, 1,000 more students marched towards Birmingham's business district for yet another rally. The city's infamous police chief, Eugene "Bull" Connor, made a crucial tactical mistake -- ordering his men to use nightsticks and German Shepherds to drive away the marchers, and sending firefighters to blast them with water from powerful hoses. The three major television networks broadcast these scenes of mayhem to millions of American homes. These televised images of brutality urgently drove home the need for civil rights reform in a way that the printed word could not have done. More than ever before, people understood the worthy objectives of a movement whose time had come. Over the next 10 weeks, 758 civil rights demonstrations took place in 186 American cities, with many white participants. And these rallies were effective as catalysts for social change. The summer of 1963 alone saw 50 Southern cities agree to desegregate their public facilities.
Throughout these early years of the civil-rights movement, white racial attitudes were gradually but indisputably evolving in every region of the United States:
- In 1942, opinion polls found that the proportion of whites favoring school integration was just 30%, and a paltry 2% in the South. By 1956 these figures had grown to 49% and 15%, respectively, and by 1963 they stood at 62% and 31%.
- In 1942, about 44% of all whites, and only 4% of Southern whites, favored the racial integration of passengers on streetcars and buses. By 1956 these numbers had swelled to 60% and 27%, and in 1963 they reached 79% and 52%.
- In 1942, scarcely 35% of whites nationwide, and 12% of whites in the South, were comfortable having a black person of the same income and education move into their block. By 1956 the corresponding figures had grown to 51% to 38%, and in 1963 they stood at 64% and 51%.
- Between 1942 in 1956, the proportion of all whites who viewed blacks as their intellectual equals rose from 41% to 77%; in the South, the shift was from about 21% to 59%.
- Between 1944 in 1963, the overall proportion of whites who felt that blacks "should have as good a chance as white people to get any kind of job" doubled, from 42% to 83%.
The growing popularity of the nondiscrimination ideal led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation in all facilities designed to serve the general public. Such entities as buses, streetcars, hotels, libraries, swimming pools, dance halls, movie theaters, and bowling alleys could no longer lawfully keep blacks out or confined to separate areas. In addition, the new law forbade discrimination in employment and public education, denying federal funds to "programs that operated in a discriminatory manner."
Until 1966, the civil-rights movement united widely disparate elements in the black community along with their white supporters, but in that year a strain of militant young radicals, impatient with the rate of change and not content with purely nonviolent methods of protest, injected themselves into the movement. Consequently there were schisms in the movement's leadership, and the new militancy alienated many white sympathizers, as did a wave of violent rioting in the black ghettos of several major cities in 1965-67. The assassination of Dr. King in April 1968 sparked further riots, and the movement lost its cohesiveness. Different leaders advocated varying degrees of militancy.
Since the late 1960s, the implications of the term "civil rights" have undergone a radical transmutation. Originally the term believed in the promise of America and stood for the idea that all individuals should be treated equally under the law, regardless of their race, religion, sex, or any other social categories. The civil-rights establishment of more recent times, however, has largely moved away from advocating equal rights and opportunities, favoring instead equal outcomes guaranteed by racial preferences -- in both the business world and in academia. Today an overwhelming majority of organizations and spokespersons professing a commitment to the defense of civil rights advance the notion that the United States is a nation irredeemably infested with racism and that little, if any, progress has been made in improving the social and economic condition of blacks.
Moreover, the modern-day civil-rights establishment also depicts other nonwhite minorities -- particularly Hispanics -- as victims of American injustice. Asians, however, are exempted from such a depiction -- because they have been high achievers educationally, professionally, and financially. Indeed, by numerous indicators of success and prosperity, Asians outperform whites by a significant margin. This inconvenient fact does not square with the left's narrative of oppressive white victimizers and downtrodden nonwhite victims.
In present-day America, an overwhelming majority of organizations professing a commitment to the defense of civil rights maintain that the United States is a nation irredeemably infected with racism -- a place where discrimination and oppression remain the order of the day, and where little if any progress has been made toward improving the social and economic condition of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.
Emblematic of this mindset is that of America’s oldest (founded in 1909) and largest (500,000 members) civil-rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose mission is “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.”
During the Jim Crow era of segregation, the NAACP helped lead numerous crusades aimed at achieving racial justice for black Americans. The organization's officers and rank-and-file members alike courageously took many public stands that exposed them to both ridicule and peril. During the World War II era, membership in the group increased tenfold. In 1954, after years of fighting segregation in public schools, the NAACP won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the organization played a prominent role in the massive wave of civil-rights demonstrations that finally brought segregation to an end throughout the United States.
During the same period, however, the NAACP increasingly became an organ of the far left. Today the NAACP blames "institutional" white racism for virtually every problem African Americans face. The remedies it proposes for fixing those problems invariably call for greater government intervention and more taxpayer-funded social-welfare programs, rather than calls for black self-help. Consequently, the organization supports racial preferences rather than equal rights in the realms of employment and education. Indeed it began moving in that direction in the early 1960s, just a few years after having advocated color-blind justice in the Brown case.
The NAACP in recent decades has forged alliances with some of the most radical elements in the black community, as exemplified by the "sacred covenants" the group made in the 1990s with the Congressional Black Caucus and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Also in the Nineties, then-NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis recruited into his organization such prominent black militants as Al Sharpton, Maulana Karenga, Angela Davis, Calvin Butts, and Cornel West. In a similar spirit in 2002, then-NAACP president Kweisi Mfume led a delegation to Communist Cuba, where embraced Fidel Castro, lauded the dictator's political achievements, and urged that the U.S. normalize its trade relations with Havana.
A number of influential Islamic civil-rights groups have also come into existence in recent decades. Among the best-known of these is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), co-founded in 1994 by Nihad Awad and Omar Ahmad. Both of these men were officials of the Islamic Association for Palestine (IAP), which was established by senior Hamas operative Mousa Abu Marzook and functioned as Hamas’ public-relations and recruitment arm in the United States. CAIR seeks to "promote a positive image of Islam and Muslims in America," aims to protect Muslims from hate crimes and discrimination, and is described by its director of communications,Ibrahim Hooper, as being "similar to a Muslim NAACP." There is a degree of accuracy to Hooper's claim, in light of the fact that much as the NAACP views America as a racist nation, CAIR laments the allegedly ubiquitous "Islamophobia" of the American people.
Notwithstanding the lofty values and goals CAIR professes to embrace, the organization has had numerous, well-documented ties to Islamic terrorism and extremism. A number of its leading officials have been convicted of such transgressions as funding and promoting the genocidal agendas of Hamas and Hezbollah; taking money from the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a pseudo-charity that was later shut down by the U.S. government because of its ties to Hamas; conspiring in an Islamic Group plot to blow up numerous New York City monuments; illegally shipping merchandise to designated state sponsors of terrorism; and training with an al Qaeda-allied terrorist group in Kashmir.
In the summer of 2007, it was learned that CAIR's parent organization, the Islamic Association for Palestine, had been named in a May 1991 Muslim Brotherhood memorandum as one of the Brotherhood's likeminded "organizations of our friends" who shared the common goal of conducting "a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within."
Also prominent among modern-day civil-rights groups is the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the United States. NCLR works “to improve opportunities for Hispanic Americans,” who are, in its estimation, an oppressed minority that suffers greatly from injustice and discrimination in American society. Toward that end, NCLR favors amnesty for Hispanic illegals already residing in the U.S., and open borders henceforth -- on the theory that any restriction on the free movement of immigrants constitutes a violation of their civil rights, and that any reduction in government assistance to illegal border-crossers represents “a disgrace to American values.”
In addition, NCLR supports access to driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants; opposes the REAL ID Act, which requires that all driver’s license and photo ID applicants be able to verify that they are legal residents of the United States; opposes measures that would empower state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws; lobbies for racial and ethnic preferences (affirmative action) and set-asides in hiring, promotions, and college admissions; and supports voting rights for illegal aliens.
Among the most prominent civil-rights activists in recent decades has been Al Sharpton, long known for his racially charged, often incendiary rhetoric. Sharpton personifies not only the modern civil-rights movement's penchant for fomenting racial conflict, but also its unmistakable preference for socialism over capitalism. Said Sharpton in 2010: "Dr. King’s dream … was not to put one black president in the White House. The dream was to make everything equal in everybody’s house."
Equally well-known as a civil-rights icon is Jesse Jackson, whose public career has been founded largely on the claim that most whites are inveterate racists, and that progress for blacks in the United States has proceeded far too slowly and imperceptibly in recent decades. Calling white racism a problem that “the entire nation has to deal with,” Jackson professes to yearn for a future “in which white Americans will have grown, by overcoming their unfounded fears” of black people. “Racism," he says, "is a deeply ingrained congenital deformity in the U.S. It is at the root of our society and it is the rot of our national character.”
For many years, Jackson has been a passionate supporter of affirmative action in employment and college admissions. Invoking the name of Martin Luther King to buttress this position, Jackson has used the term “intellectual terrorism” to describe any suggestion that King, were he alive today, would oppose racial preferences for African Americans. Favoring preferences in all sectors of American life, Jackson, echoing Sharpton's call for material redistribution, has said: "We must have a plan to achieve equal results." Jackson is also a longtime admirer of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro(calling him "the most honest and courageous politician I've ever met") and his late henchman Che Guevara.
The Hispanic community, too, has cultivated an active civil-rights establishment in recent years. One notable figure in that movement is Raul Yzaguirre, who served as president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) from 1974 to 2004. In Yzaguirre’s view, illegal aliens are best described as “hardworking people who are paying taxes, who are helping this economy.” Opposed to the imposition of sanctions against employers who hire illegals, Yzaguirre claims that such policies create “massive levels of discrimination against Hispanics.” Indeed, he rejects the very use of the term “illegal.” In 2004 Yzaguirre characterized the Border Patrol’s arrest of illegal border-crossers in a number of southern California communities as “a clear assault on civil rights in an area with a sizable Latino population.”