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In Pursuit of Civil Rights: An Iterative and Sustained Struggle for Progress

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brandi Blessett
February 10, 2015

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Despite countless social and technological advancements during the 20th century, a number of civil rights issues have re-emerged in the 21st century. Affirmative action, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights, reproductive rights, immigration and voting have again become prominent issues that have caught the public’s attention either due to lawsuits, judicial decisions, protests and/or executive orders. Thus, while some battles have been won, the proverbial war wages on, particularly as civil rights appears to have a cyclical legacy with regard to issues at the intersection of race, gender, class and sexuality. In other words, it appears as if one step forward results in several steps backward in seeking justice and equality for all. 

The 1960s witnessed an uprising of counterculture movements in response to a repressive military, political and religious apparatus in the United States. During this time there were significant victories that pushed equality beyond its historical boundaries. A few examples of social upheaval:

  • Feminist movementRoe v. Wade was a monumental victory because it afforded women the authority and autonomy to make reproductive decisions about their bodies. The Equal Pay Act and Title IX sought to eliminate legal barriers to women’s involvement in professional and athletic activities.
  • Gay liberation movement – On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. While police attacks were not uncommon (homosexual sex was illegal in every state except Illinois), this particular raid sparked the gay rights movement as patrons’ resisted arrest, thus initiating six days of protests and demonstrations.
  • Civil rights movement – The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned workplace discrimination and brought an end to the Jim Crow era of ‘separate but equal’, while the Voting Rights Act attempted to eliminate institutionalized discrimination, which left millions of eligible Black voters unable to access the polls. 

Although focused on different priorities, each movement sought to obtain for their constituents the basic rights and privileges afforded to them by the founding documents of this country. While there were moderate successes over past five decades, copious attempts have been made by state legislatures (e.g., Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas) and special interest groups (e.g., Citizens United, the Family Research Council, the Conservative Caucus) to undermine the civil rights protections previously won by historically marginalized groups.

As it relates to the feminist movement, a 2013 New York Times article stated, “The House of Representatives…approved the most restrictive ban on abortion in a decade.” While House Bill no. 1797 was symbolic (it would not become law under the Obama administration), such a gesture demonstrates the temperament and will to continue attempts to limit or ban abortion altogether. Additionally, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, but the pay gap still remains. To date, women only make $.77 for every dollar earned by a man.

LGBT allies rejoiced in the 2013 United States v. Windsor decision ruled unconstitutional the language of Section (3) in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. With this decision, at least from the federal perspective, same-sex couples were equal to their heterosexual counterparts in the eyes of the law. The DOMA ruling set off a wave of legal challenges at the state level, which has resulted in 35 states recognizing gay marriage.

In the same week, civil rights advocates rejected the Supreme Court ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder decision that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 was unconstitutional. Section 4(b) specifically identified several states and counties with a history of voter suppression and required that these jurisdictions obtain preclearance (federal approval) before any rules or laws regarding voting be changed. Justice Roberts argued, “Voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.” With this one decision, the cumulative advances of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly as they relate to voter disenfranchisement, were diminished.

Furthermore, in reflecting on the wave of protests in the United States and around the world in response to the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner and others by law enforcement officers. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was an outgrowth of anger and frustration about the long-standing ways in which black bodies and black communities are policed. The anger and frustration of those participating in these demonstrations were directly related to a long history of police brutality and mistrust.

In a country that prides itself on rugged individualism, freedom and autonomy, it becomes difficult to believe those principles apply to all, when historically marginalized groups continue to be oppressed and disenfranchised within the same system. An increasingly diverse United States requires that differences of opinion on religion, language, culture and sexuality be recognized and welcomed into the broader discourse of public and social policy decisions. If this does not happen, the U.S. becomes a country of hypocrites that wants to extend freedom and argue for democracy places like China and Russia, without upholding the truest essence of what those principles mean at home.

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