What Are Civil Rights and How Do We Identify Them?


When we look back at the past, it’s relatively easy to identify civil rights issues that arose. But looking into the future is much harder. For example, few people fifty years ago would have identified the rights of the LGBT community as an important civil rights issue or predicted it would become one, yet in the intervening decades it has certainly done so. Similarly, in past decades the rights of those with disabilities, particularly mental disabilities, were often ignored by the public at large. Many people with disabilities were institutionalized and given little further thought, and within the past century, it was common for those with mental disabilities to be subject to forced sterilization.Catherine K. Harbour, and Pallab K. Maulik. 2010. “History of Intellectual Disability.” In International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation, eds. J. H. Stone and M. Blouin. http://cirrie.buffalo.edu/encyclopedia/en/article/143/ (April 10, 2016). Today, most of us view this treatment as barbaric.

Clearly, then, new civil rights issues can emerge over time. How can we, as citizens, identify them as they emerge and distinguish genuine claims of discrimination from claims by those who have merely been unable to convince a majority to agree with their viewpoints? For example, how do we decide if twelve-year-olds are discriminated against because they are not allowed to vote? We can identify true discrimination by applying the following analytical process:

  1. Which groups? First, identify the group of people who are facing discrimination.
  2. Which right(s) are threatened? Second, what right or rights are being denied to members of this group?
  3. What do we do? Third, what can the government do to bring about a fair situation for the affected group? Is proposing and enacting such a remedy realistic?

Join the Fight for Civil Rights

One way to get involved in the fight for civil rights is to stay informed. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is a not-for-profit advocacy group based in Montgomery, Alabama. Lawyers for the SPLC specialize in civil rights litigation and represent many people whose rights have been violated, from victims of hate crimes to undocumented immigrants. They provide summaries of important civil rights cases under their Docket section.

Activity: Visit the SPLC website to find current information about a variety of different hate groups. In what part of the country do hate groups seem to be concentrated? Where are hate incidents most likely to occur? What might be some reasons for this?

Link to learning graphic

Civil rights institutes are found throughout the United States and especially in the south. One of the most prominent civil rights institutes is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is located in Alabama.