Civil Rights Definition

Today, a term often used to describe a variety of individual rights protected by constitutions and statutes guaranteeing that all persons who are similarly situated will be treated equally under the law. While there has been much debate over the origins of individual rights, the equality principle animating the civil rights concept can be found in the 14th Amendment equal protection clause, as well as the guarantee of equality found in the Fifth Amendment due process clause.

In the past, the term "civil rights" was sometimes used to distinguish other recognized rights like "political rights" (the right to vote and to hold elected office, for instance) and "social rights" (for example, the right to enjoy public accommodations like theaters and restaurants, and to use public conveyances like buses and train cars). Today, those distinctions are largely gone, and political, social, and civil rights all are described as "civil rights."

Unlike civil liberties, civil rights can be violated by the government or by private actors. For example, if a private employer discriminates against Black employees based upon their race, that's a civil rights violation prohibited by, among other laws, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. If a city government employer engages in racial discrimination, that's a civil rights violation under the 14th Amendment equal protection clause.