Another basic hallmark of the Constitution is the protection of equality of treatment and equality of freedom under the law. In a democracy, the people possess the civil right to be treated the same, to be free from arbitrary discrimination, and to enjoy the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights. The Constitution requires the state to extend equal social, political, and economic opportunities to everyone. The equal protection clause and other provisions protect a variety of civil rights--freedom to be treated equally under the law and freedom from discrimination because of race, gender, religion, disability, age, and sexual orientation. The wringing words of the Declaration of Independence reflect the commitment to equality: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." The Declaration appeared to place equality on the same level with liberty. But the Founders narrowly extended civil rights to white males and largely protestant and property-owning ones. Only after the Civil War was equal rights for other groups considered with the passage of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments. It took the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and corresponding public policies for the nation to start fulfilling the promise of equality. Today, the principle of equality of treatment recognizes that significant social, political, and economic opportunities to a fulfilling life cannot be denied to people because of prejudice, a stereotype, or immutable trait. The law guarantees to everyone an equal footing to compete in the public and private sectors. Neither public officials nor private parties may discriminate against individuals without an overriding interest such as the safety or rights of others. No one has a right to own a house, to work as an accountant without credentials, or to drive vehicle with poor eyesight. But the public and private sectors may not deny basic social, political, and economic rights to persons simply on account of prejudice. Why were the Founders unwilling to fully put their principle of equality of treatment into political practice?
For over two centuries, African Americans have been denied basic civil rights and discriminated against despite being the largest ethnic minority within the United States. Blacks were initially kidnapped from their African tribes and brought over to America to work as slaves. The ones who survived the tortuous journey were faced with a debilitating life of involuntary servitude. It was not until after the Civil War that the federal government took steps to protect the four million newly freed slaves. Blacks were guaranteed civil rights through constitutional amendments and federal statues passed during the First Reconstruction. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted to outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude. But blacks continued to be discriminated against within the public and private sectors. The southern states passed Black Codes that relegated African Americans to a status of second-class citizens. They were denied the right to vote, receive quality public education, compete for job opportunities, and access public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants. Congress responded by enacting the first Civil Rights Act (1866). It boldly declared that all citizens "shall have the same right...to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property as is enjoyed by white citizens." The southern states challenged the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act and refused to respect the civil rights of blacks. The nation responded by adopting the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), prohibiting the states to deny anyone the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States. It also prohibited the states to deny anyone due process of law or equal protection of the law. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was adopted to protect the right to vote of African Americans. Congress also continued to pass a host of statutes forbidding racial discrimination, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1870 and 1875. But for many years after the First Reconstruction, the civil rights afforded by these laws were gradually ignored and eroded during a period of state enforced segregation.
After the controversial presidential election of 1876, the Republicans agreed to end the vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws. Federal troops overseeing the First Reconstruction were withdrawn and federal efforts to enforce civil rights legislation were ended. Plus the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of or struck down most important civil rights laws. In a series of cases, the justices overturned federal laws forbidding discrimination in public accommodations and curtailed the reach of other laws punishing people for failing to respect the rights of Blacks. Southern states promptly enacted "Jim Crow" statutes (named after a racist character in minstrel shows) to completely disenfranchise African Americans. These statutes required governments, businesses, and public accommodations to separate black from white patrons. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment permitted laws requiring racial segregation. The justices decided that separate public facilities for blacks and whites satisfied the equal protection clause as long as they were equal. This separate but equal doctrine encouraged the states to pass additional Jim Crow laws, segregating the races in nearly every important phase of life. Blacks were relegated to separate, but far from equal schools, jobs, housing, and so on. White groups like the Ku Klux Klan crushed any attempts by blacks toward social advancement with hostility, intimidation, and violence. Nearly five thousand known lynchings between 1880 and 1950 document the white tactics of racial terror. The states also began to disenfranchise blacks by revising their constitutions to prevent them from retaliating at the polls. Provisions were adopted instituting literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and white primaries. The effect of such voting restrictions was significant. In Louisiana alone, 130,344 blacks were registered to vote in 1896. In 1898 the state charter was revised and by 1900 there were only 5,000 registered black voters. By the twentieth century, African Americans were again being subjected to state-enforced racial prejudice. What are some of the lingering effects of past discrimination for Blacks in today's society?
Equally important, women have been denied civil rights throughout the history of the United States. Initially the Constitution denied suffrage to women, despite the fact that a handful of women had held public office in colonial America. In 1715, for example, the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed a woman as tax collector. Perhaps Abigail Adams had this practice in mind when she wrote her husband John Adams at the Constitutional Convention. She advised him not to "put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could...If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." Of course her concerns fell on deaf ears. It was not until the 1860s that states begin to grant voting rights to women. In the 1910s, the suffrage movement for women reached the federal level. It was marked by demonstrations, hunger strikes, and disobedience. The result was the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), prohibiting federal and state officials to deny the right to vote because of gender. But women continued to struggle to be elected to office. Not until 1916 was the first women elected to Congress, even before women were given the right to vote. Overall progress has been gradual and marginal. There have been approximately two hundred women elected to Congress and the number of women serving in Congress has more than doubled since 1970. More than one hundred thousand women now hold public office, but most of these offices are minor. Today women represent 14 percent of House seats and 13 percent of Senate seats, even though they make up 53 percent of the population. Progress also has been made at the state and local level. Women hold 29 percent of all statewide elective offices and 23 percent of state legislative offices. Five women are governors and nineteen are lieutenant governors. This increased political support for women suggests a continuation of the trend toward more women holding political office, particularly higher ranking offices. Are Americans ready to elect a woman to be President and will the policy preferences of a female president be any different than a male one?
During the 1950s and 1960s, the movement toward equality for minority groups and women became a national concern. Groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) engaged in a well-organized campaign to protect the civil rights of blacks. One strategy was to seek the courts for help. In 1952, the NAACP filed a lawsuit on behalf of Linda Brown and her parents against the school system of Topeka, Kansas. Linda was forced to go to an all-black school twenty-one blocks from her house rather than go to an all-white school a few blocks away her house. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court reversed the separate but equal doctrine and struck down the segregation of the public schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren decided that "segregation creates in children a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. [I]n the field of public education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The effect of Brown was to undermine the entire foundation of state-enforced racial segregation. Later the Supreme Court resorted to the remedy of busing to force the public schools to desegregate. Local officials were required to transport students by bus to schools outside their neighborhoods to achieve racially desegregated schools. Busing orders were unpopular for many officials, parents, and children. High ranking state officials refused to comply with the Brown ruling. In 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus authorized the state's National Guard to block the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. The Governor himself stood in the schoolhouse door and refused to allow young black students to enter. Integration was not instituted until President Dwight Eisenhower sent out the 101st Airborne and federalized the National Guard. Even some school officials took advantage of bureaucratic loopholes to avoid desegregation. Parents engaged in white flight by moving away from the cities and sending their children to better public schools or newly established private schools. The federal government responded to such practices by intervening in more than 500 school desegregation cases. As a result of court supervised desegregation, many southern and northern cities now have more integrated public schools than ever before. But public support for busing and other remedies to integrate schools appears to be fading. In recent years, the Supreme Court has started to restrict the supervisory role of federal judges. It has instructed them to restore control of a school system to local officials and to release districts from busing obligations once the authorities "have done everything practicable to overcome the past consequences of segregation."
Another important dimension of the Civil Rights Movement was the use of peaceful civil disobedience. It consisted of the deliberate, public refusal to obey segregation and other unjust laws to attract attention to the injustices. One instance involved a black woman named Rosa Parks, who was a hardworking religious person and the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. In 1955, Parks Parks got on her usual bus ride home in Montgomery, Alabama. She sat in the middle of the bus in seats called "no man's land," a buffer zone between the black-only seats in the back and white-only seats in the front. As the bus filled up, the driver told blacks to move to the back. Parks refused to sit in the colored only section at the rear of the bus. The driver arrested Parks under the local segregation law which gave him emergency police powers. She was fined for violating the local segregation ordinance. Her defiance to the law inspired several churches and civil rights groups to organize a one year boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The demonstrations were led by a local Baptist minister, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Black protestors were regularly harassed as they walked to work and black leaders were threatened with assassination. King was put in jail and his house was dynamited. But the African American community refused to quit. In 1956, a federal court ordered an injunction against the segregation of buses in Montgomery. Other peaceful boycotts, sit-ins, marches, lawsuits, and even violent confrontations followed. Mass demonstrations took place in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Americans watched on television as local police attacked peaceful demonstrators with dogs and fire hoses. Thousands of letters of protest arrived at the White House. In a televised address, President Kennedy asked Congress to respond to the "rising tide of discontent" by enacting comprehensive civil rights legislation. The President committed the nation to bring about equality for blacks, regardless of the reactions of white southerners. Within a few hours of the presidential address, an NAACP official named Medgar Evers was shot to death in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. Civil Rights demonstrations multiplied across the country, culminating in the massive March on Washington. It at this event that Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to hundreds of thousands of people, calling for equal rights to given to everyone.
The Civil Rights Movement and tactics of civil disobedience put civil rights on the top of the national agenda. Congress began to propose civil rights laws. For a while southern resistance to legislative reform seemed strong. But when Lyndon Johnson became president after the assassination of President Kennedy, his first address to Congress called for "the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which Kennedy had fought so long." Southern democrats in the Senate stalled progress for nearly three months, engaging in a filibuster to kill the bill. Eventually Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, or national origin in businesses with more than twenty-five employees; in public accommodations such as motels, restaurants, theaters, gas stations, and sports arenas; and in any program receiving federal funding. Later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It abolished literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal voting registrars to supervise registration within the south. As a result of the Voting Rights Act, millions of blacks became registered to vote and became a potent political force. Congress also enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1968, outlawing discrimination in the selling, buying, or renting of housing. In this Second Reconstruction, African Americans made tremendous strides in bringing about greater social, political, and economic equality. Why does discrimination persists and the promise of equality is still unfulfilled for blacks?
Another significant civil rights movements within America has been the emergence of homosexual men and women into the political life. Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, gays and lesbians tended to keep quiet about their sexual preferences since to expose themselves usually meant facing harsh consequences. The movement for expanded gay rights traces roots back to 1969, when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. The precise number of homosexuals is unclear. The gay and lesbian community claim numbers of 10 percent. But other estimates are much lower. Some estimate that 2.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual. Regardless of its overall size, the homosexual community has become a vocal political force within larger cities like San Francisco. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have gay members in Congress. The political agenda for gays and lesbians has consisted of fighting discrimination on many different fronts. In several cities and among some employers, gays and lesbians have been able to secure health care coverage and other benefits for their domestic partners. Statutes protecting sexual orientation in housing, employment, and marriage have been passed in some states. Some recent judicial decisions have recognized the right of gays to be protected against laws banning private homosexual relations and denying homosexuals a right to marry.
Some Compelling Questions
One of the central questions of American politics asks how civil rights and equality are protected under the Constitution? What are the rationales for protecting people from unreasonable government discrimination? How do the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment guarantee equality of treatment from public officials? How has the Constitution and civil rights statutes been used to prohibit discrimination within the private sector?
Another central question of American politics asks whether every person has been accorded equal treatment under the law? How have political, social, and economic opportunities for white men been markedly different for Native, Black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans? How do policies promoting equality of opportunity, equality of condition, and equality of outcome attempt to redress inequities? How should cases of reverse discrimination against white males be treated under the Constitution?