The distinction between civil liberties—the Constitution’s protections from government power—and civil rights—protections provided by the government against the arbitrary actions of others—has important implications for collective action. Civil liberties are protected as long as government does not overstep its authority. Those seeking civil rights instead must overcome large collective action problems in order to get government to take action to protect them.
The long struggle of African Americans to achieve political equality with Whites illustrates the manner in which civil rights have historically been denied and won. Under the Constitution, national majorities opposing slavery and racial discrimination found it difficult to prevail over entrenched opposition in Southern states. Opponents of civil rights for African Americans were defeated only by the ascension of overwhelming governing majorities or through armed conflict.
While the motives of civil rights leaders have often been altruistic, advancing the cause has often required proponents to appeal to the political or economic interests of the majority. Prior to the Civil War, for example, politicians formed antislavery majorities by appealing to Northern Whites’ fears of expanding competition from slave labor, not the principle of political equality. Following Reconstruction, civil rights languished as Northern Democrats needed Southern support to retain power. With the massive relocation of African Americans to Northern cities in the 20th century, Northern Democrats became more receptive to African American voters.
The civil rights movement was a well-organized, sustained campaign for achieving political equality. Early efforts focused on a litigation strategy, yielding landmark decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 but little change in the status quo. Civil rights leaders changed tactics in the 1960s, seeking to pressure elected officials with demonstrations designed to attract media attention. These efforts led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which brought about fundamental change by shifting the burden for protecting civil rights from individual plaintiffs to federal authorities.
Momentum has slowed since, as society has struggled with how to counter the effects of past discrimination. At the same time, the successes of the civil rights movement for African Americans have helped pave the way politically for many other groups facing discrimination.
- What features of government did the Southern states employ to prevent the eradication of slavery? What steps were necessary to remove these obstacles to emancipation?
- How did the readmission of the Southern states after the Civil War threaten the Republican Party's grip on power? How was Reconstruction tailored to help ensure that Republicans remained in power?
- What benefits did Reconstruction produce for former slaves? For Northern Whites? What benefits and which groups did Reconstruction “leave out,” and why?
- What party did most African Americans support prior to the 1930s and why? Why did this change after the 1930s and what was responsible for the change?
- How did the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s change the political calculations of Democratic politicians? How were the demonstrations planned strategically to increase pressure on politicians?
- What challenges and opportunities do Hispanics face in their current civil rights efforts? How do these differ from those Blacks faced in their civil rights campaigns?
- How has the Supreme Court responded to efforts to use affirmative action in college admissions?
- How did the women’s rights movement benefit from the civil rights movement?
- Why did the Equal Rights Amendment fail to be ratified despite its initial popularity?
- How does the campaign for gay rights differ from prior civil rights campaigns?