What are civil rights?
Civil rights provide basic freedoms to individuals and seek to achieve the equal enjoyment of rights and privileges. Civil rights manifest in various forms. One civil right is the entitlement to equal treatment, or equal protection of law, regardless of an individual's membership in a protected category. This civil right covers protection from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, age, and disability, among other things. Civil rights also include various personal freedoms, such as the right to privacy, to free speech, to vote, to partake in political action, and to peacefully protest. Additionally, civil rights encompass the right to receive due process and, for those suspected of a crime, to receive a fair investigation and trial.
Civil rights overlap with civil liberties. Civil liberties can, however, be distinguished from civil rights in that civil liberties largely encompass those rights which protect against the infringement by government upon personal freedoms, such as the right to religious freedom and the freedom of speech.
What laws protect civil rights?
In the United States, the federal Constitution is the preeminent source of civil rights. States may grant civil rights in their own Constitutions or through legislation; however, they can only be more expansive, and may not in any way reduce federal civil rights protection.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments ratified to the Constitution in 1791, contains the earliest civil rights protections. Examples include the freedom of speech (U.S. Const. Am. 1), freedom from unwarranted searches and seizures (U.S. Const. Am. 4), the right to due process (U.S. Const. Am. 5), and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment (U.S. Const. Am. 8).
The Constitution did not address discrimination until the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, following the Civil War during the Reconstruction. The oldest civil rights protections, the Bill of Rights, were not only limited in scope (offering no protection against discrimination), but were also limited in application. The Bill of Rights was only applied to a segment of the population, and did not guarantee the equal enjoyment of civil rights by minorities, women, and, sometimes, non-property-owning individuals. Even after the passage of the 13th-15th Amendments, the Supreme Court's restrictive interpretation of related federal legislation severely undermined achievement of equal protection and due process.
Although women received the right to vote in 1920 (U.S. Const. Am. 19), they, along with other minorities, did not enjoy their full entitlement to civil rights until decades later, after Congress passed additional federal civil rights legislation. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's-60's, Congress enacted some of the most important civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Unlike the federal legislation passed during Reconstruction to implement the 13th-15th Amendments, the Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the new civil rights legislation. Supreme Court cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (overruling the "separate-but-equal" doctrine upheld in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), as well as federal enforcement of new civil rights laws, were instrumental in achieving greater enjoyment of civil rights.
Beginning in the 1970's, federal and state governments, as well as private entities, established affirmative action programs to eradicate the effects of discrimination. The Supreme Court, however, beginning with the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978) (holding unlawful white applicant's exclusion from medical school on grounds applicant was disfavored on basis of race), has struck down many of these programs as unconstitutional discrimination.