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Civil Rights and American Politics. What are civil rights? Modern term-historic roots. 2. Founders were concerned about “natural rights” -Jefferson: “inalienable rights” -Colonists: taxation w/o representation=tyranny -The term “civil rights” wasn’t in use, but they

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Civil Rights and American Politics

  • What are civil rights? Modern term-historic roots.

    2. Founders were concerned about “natural rights”

    -Jefferson: “inalienable rights”

    -Colonists: taxation w/o representation=tyranny

    -The term “civil rights” wasn’t in use, but they

    certainly had a notion of civic rights regarding

    participation, expression, & representation.


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3. From the beginning, there have been struggles

over the definition of civil rights. The republic

becomes an exercise in defining those rights.

Who gets to vote? How should we think about

slavery? And more.

4. What is the difference between “civil rights” and “civil liberties”?

- civil liberties = fundamental personal freedoms that lie beyond government interference

-the biggest problem=protection from government


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5. Civil rights=safeguards against any effort by government or dominant groups to subjugate or take unfair advantage of other groups.

-Includes the rights of individuals in their relations with others: freedom from bondage or intimidation, freedom to enter into contracts and own property, equal educational and economic opportunities, and more.

6. Hence, civil liberties need protection FROM govt.

But civil rights frequently depend on government intervention for their provision.


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7. Much of the first half of the 19 or dominant groups to subjugate or take unfair advantage of other groups.th century is consumed by political struggles regarding the extension of the franchise and the extension and regulation of slavery. Today we would call these struggles over civil rights.

8. The culmination of the bloodiest war in American history, the Civil War, is reached in the adoption of the three Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Slavery is outlawed, citizenship and the right to vote are defined.


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9. Perhaps the Second Revolution in American Politics begins with the 14th Amendment: “… nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

10. Equal protection of laws is the stuff of Civil Rights, and hence the 14th Amendment makes it the responsibility of the national government to secure people’s civil rights, and in the process redefines American federalism.


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11. But what exactly are these civil rights? The definition of those rights is a continuing struggle. We are currently engaged in struggles over the rights of women, gay citizens, the handicapped, and more. These are very American struggles. Let’s look at one.

12. The end of reconstruction in the 1870s gave rise to an assault on the 14th Amendment via Jim Crow laws.

13. Jim Crow is constitutionally institutionalized with Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the rise of “separate but equal.”


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14. The NAACP uses a legal strategy in an effort to overturn “separate but equal.” Why did they need a legal strategy?

15. This strategy ultimately pays off in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ruled that, in the area of education, separate is INHERENTLY UNEQUAL.


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16. These struggles over civil rights and educational opportunity are not over. They continue on nearly 50 years later. And we continue to struggle with other civil rights issues – for example, affirmative action and reverse discrimination.

17. Why are these issues so difficult? Part of the reason lies in a dual commitment to equality and equal protection as well as to individual freedom. Indeed, some of these problems are an outgrowth of a system that embraces BOTH democracy and capitalism.


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