Civil Rights

To live freely and participate in society is a right many take for granted. Acquiring and maintaining civil rights have been a struggle for different groups throughout U.S. history. Civil rights are personal rights guaranteed and protected by the U.S. Constitution and federal laws enacted by Congress. These personal rights and laws include protection from unlawful discrimination.

In the 1883 landmark civil rights cases, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have the power to prohibit discrimination in the private sector. This ruling stripped the Civil Rights Act of 1875 of much of its ability to protect civil rights. 

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the legal justification for voiding the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was part of a larger trend by members of the Supreme Court to invalidate most government regulations of the private sector. An exception was made for laws and regulations designed to protect public morality. 

In the 1930s, during the New Deal, most of the Supreme Court justices shifted their legal theory to allow for greater government regulation of the private sector under the commerce clause. This change paved the way for the federal government to enact civil rights laws prohibiting both public and private sector discrimination based on the commerce clause. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the nation’s premier civil rights legislation. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; required equal access to employment and public places; and enforced school desegregation and the right to vote. The law did not end discrimination, but it did open the door to further progress.

Although the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments outlawed slavery, provided for equal protection under the law, guaranteed citizenship and protected the right to vote, individual states continued to allow unfair treatment of minorities and passed Jim Crow laws allowing segregation of public facilities. These were upheld by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1895), which found state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities that were “separate but equal” to be constitutional. This finding helped continue legalized discrimination well into the 20th century.

Following World War II, pressures to recognize, challenge and change inequalities for minorities grew. One of the most notable challenges to the status quo was the 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which questioned the notion of “separate but equal” in public education. The Supreme Court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and they violate the 14th Amendment. This decision polarized Americans, fostered debate and served as a catalyst to encourage federal action to protect civil rights. [Sources:,, and]

Legacy Stories from the Americans All Heritage Honor Roll

We are pleased to host and share these legacy stories created by honorees’ family, friends and associates. They, like us, appreciate that heritage and culture are an integral part of our nation's social fabric and want to help students participate effectively in our nation's economy, workforce and democracy.

Last Name of Individual
First Name of Individual
Group name

Polly Bemis Idaho (September 11, 1853 - November 6, 1933) Chinese American Pioneer, Historic Building

Polly Bemis became a legend after her death when her story became a biographical novel and was fictionalized in 1991, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn in the movie, Thousand Pieces of Gold. As such, some details of her story may be tied to folklore, but one thing is clear. As Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus said in 1987 . . . "She is the foremost pioneer on the rugged Salmon River.”

Honorable Sandra Day Day O'Connor Arizona (March 26, 1930 - ?) U.S. Supreme Court Justice

From Triumph To Tragedy, 'First' Tells Story Of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Late last year, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor issued a statement announcing that she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It was a poignant moment, a reminder that for decades O'Connor was seen as the most powerful woman in America. Now comes an important book about her . . .

Rev. James William Charles Pennington New York (c.1807 - October 22, 1870) African-American, Presbyterian, Writer, Minister, Abolitionist, Civil War

Born into slavery on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1807, James William Charles Pennington escaped from slavery in 1828 and settled for a time in New York and later became the first black student admitted to Yale, although he was not officially enrolled, and is reported to only have limited use of the library. Although ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, he later served Presbyterian Churches in many states.

Sojourner Truth Michigan (c.1797 - November 26, 1883) African-American, Methodist, Abolitionist, Author, Women’s Rights Activist, Civil War

Sojourner Truth was born c. 1797 as “Isabella Baumfree” to Elizabeth and James Baumfree, slaves on a Dutch settlement owned by Colonel Johannes Hardenbaugh, in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York. One of 12 children, she spent her early years serving various masters and never learned to read and write. slave, Thomas, owned by the Dumonts.

Gustavus Vassa Pennsylvania (c.1745 - March 31, 1797) African, Nigeria, England, Abolitionist, Author, Gauger, Seaman, Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano was born in West Africa in 1745, in an area of modern-day Nigeria. The son of a local chief, he was kidnapped with his sister when he was about 11 years of age and brought to a Virginia plantation, via the slave market in Barbados.