What Are Civil Rights? Definition and Examples

Civil rights advocates march on Washington, D.C. in 1963.
Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Civil rights are the rights of individuals to be protected against unfair treatment based on certain personal characteristics like race, gender, age, or disability. Governments enact civil rights laws to protect people from discrimination in social functions such as education, employment, housing, and access to public accommodations.

Civil Rights Key Takeaways

  • Civil rights protect people from unequal treatment based on their individual characteristics like race and gender.
  • Governments create civil rights laws to ensure fair treatment of groups that have traditionally been the target of discrimination.
  • Civil rights differ from civil liberties, which are specific freedoms of all citizens as listed and ensured in a binding document, such as the U.S. Bill of Rights, and interpreted by the courts.

Civil Rights Definition

Civil rights are a set of rights—established by law—that protect the freedoms of individuals from being wrongly denied or limited by governments, social organizations, or other private individuals. Examples of civil rights include the rights of people to work, study, eat, and live where they choose. To turn a customer away from a restaurant solely because of his or her race, for example, is a civil rights violation under United States laws.  

Civil rights laws are often enacted in order to guarantee fair and equal treatment for groups of people who have historically faced discrimination. In the United States, for example, several civil rights laws focus on “protected classes” of people who share characteristics such as race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation.

While now taken for granted in most other western democracies, consideration for civil rights has been deteriorating, according to international monitoring agencies. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the global war on terror has driven many governments to sacrifice civil rights in the name of security.

Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

Civil rights are often confused with civil liberties, which are the freedoms guaranteed to the citizens or residents of a country by an overriding legal covenant, like the U.S. Bill of Rights, and interpreted by the courts and lawmakers. The First Amendment’s right to free speech is an example of a civil liberty. Both civil rights and civil liberties differ subtly from human rights, those freedoms belonging to all people regardless of where they live, such as freedom from slavery, torture, and religious persecution.

International Perspective and Civil Rights Movements

Virtually all nations deny some civil rights to some minority groups either by law or by custom. In the United States, for example, women continue to face discrimination in jobs traditionally held exclusively by men. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, embodies civil rights, the provisions are not legally binding. Thus, there is no worldwide standard. Instead, individual nations tend to respond differently to pressure for enacting civil rights laws.

Historically, when a significant portion of a nation’s people feel they are treated unfairly, civil rights movements emerge. While most often associated with the American Civil Rights Movement, similar notable efforts have occurred elsewhere.

South Africa

The South African system of government-sanctioned racial segregation known as apartheid came to an end after a high-profile civil rights movement that began in the 1940s. When the white South African government responded by jailing Nelson Mandela and most of its other leaders, the anti-apartheid movement lost strength until the 1980s. Under pressure from the United States and other Western nations, the South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison and lifted its ban on the African National Congress, the major black political party, in 1990. In 1994, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa.

India

The struggle of the Dalits in India has similarities to both the American Civil Rights Movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement. Formerly known as the “Untouchables,” the Dalits belong to the lowest social group in India’s Hindu caste system. Though they make up one-sixth of India’s population, the Dalits were forced to live as second-class citizens for centuries, facing discrimination in access to jobs, education, and allowed marriage partners. After years of civil disobedience and political activism, the Dalits won victories, highlighted by the election of K. R. Narayanan to the presidency in 1997. Serving as president until 2002, Narayanan stressed the nation’s obligations towards the Dalits and other minorities and called attention to the other many social ills of caste discrimination.

Northern Ireland

After the division of Ireland in 1920, Northern Ireland witnessed violence between the ruling British Protestant majority and members of the native Irish Catholic minority. Demanding an end to discrimination in housing and employment opportunities, Catholic activists launched marches and protests modeled after the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1971, the internment without trial of over 300 Catholic activists by the British government sparked an escalated, often-violent civil disobedience campaign headed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The turning point in the struggle came on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972, when 14 unarmed Catholic civil rights marchers were shot dead by the British army. The massacre galvanized the British people. Since Bloody Sunday, the British Parliament has instituted reforms protecting the civil rights of Northern Irish Catholics.

Sources and Further Reference