A civil right is the right to be free from unequal treatment based only on “who one is” or otherwise based only on characteristics that society deems irrelevant to how people should be treated. Thus civil rights are those freedoms thought needed to ensure each person’s ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.
The “civil rights movement” names the struggle by African-Americans in the United States to become free from unequal treatment based on the color of their skin. After a hundred years of struggle, in the 1960s the movement led to the abolition of the forms of unequal treatment that had been inscribed in law in the ex-slave-economy states. The movement had much less success in its battle against other forms of discrimination such as those in housing and the workplace. Also the declaration that it was illegal to create race-specific schools did not in fact end segregation in schooling. Resulting laws and practices meant to actively create more equality (e.g. moving schoolchildren to new schools) led to a backlash of opposition and to a new term coined by some conservatives and by other opponents: “reverse discrimination.”
The African-American Civil Rights Movement had a big influence on the feminist movement, which in the 1960s and 1970s began to demand “equal pay for equal work,” and which, in the 1970’s began to demand the end to the treatment of women as objects of beauty and secondary complements to men, rather than as full-fledged individuals in their own right.
What constitutes a civil right is not always obvious - and has been a matter of widespread disagreement in the case of marriage law. Many proponents of gay rights, for example, frame their movement as a fight for civil rights, analogous to the African-American struggle. But is there a right to marry whomever one likes? Those who define marriage as the union of one man and one woman say no, their argument being that the union of two men or two women is not a marriage at all.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-Do you see gay rights as the next advance of civil rights in America? Why or why not?
-Overall, do you see civil rights as the appropriate frame for the legal changes happening in relation to the gay community?