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HUSL Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States: Introduction

This guide focuses on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States.

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through HUSL Library and HU Libraries, as well as a selection freely accessible Internet resources with a focus on authoritative content from civil rights organizations and government entities.


Civil Rights versus Human Rights

What is the difference between a civil right and a human right? Simply put, human rights are rights one acquires by being alive. Civil rights are rights that one obtains by being a legal member of a certain political state. There are obviously several liberties that overlap between these two categories, but the breakdown of rights between human and civil is roughly as follows:

Human rights include:

  • the right to life
  • the right to education
  • protection from torture
  • freedom of expression
  • the right to a free trial

Civil rights within the United States include:

  • protection from discrimination
  • the right to free speech
  • the right to due process
  • the right to equal protection
  • the right against self-incrimination

It is important to note that civil rights will change based on where a person claims citizenship because civil rights are, in essence, an agreement between the citizen and the nation or state that the citizen lives within. From an international perspective, international organizations and courts are not as likely to intervene and take action to enforce a nation's violation of its own civil rights, but are more likely to respond to human rights violations. While human rights should be universal in all countries, civil rights will vary greatly from one nation to the next. No nation may rightfully deprive a person of a human right, but different nations can grant or deny different civil rights. Thus, civil rights struggles tend to occur at local or national levels and not at the international level. At the international stage, we focus on the violation of human rights.

This guide will focus on the civil rights that various groups have fought for within the United States. While some of these rights, like the right to education, certainly overlap with human rights, we treat them as civil rights in most academic conversations. Typically, the reason used to justify a right to equal education or another human right is grounded in a civil right of due process or equal protection.


Social Justice

As Charles Hamilton Houston stated:

A lawyer’s either a social engineer or … a parasite on society … A social engineer [is] a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who [understands] the Constitution of the United States and [knows] how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.

Howard University School of Law is dedicated to producing “social engineers” and has proven track record of success. The words of Charles Hamilton Houston are alive everyday in the work taking place at The Mecca's law school.  Learn more about Social Justice issues here.

Author Credits

Over the summer of 2019, Kristina Alayan in her capacity as HUSL Library Director communicated with her former Georgetown Law Library guide collaborators and with the assistance of Victoria Capatosto, Research and Instruction Librarian at HUSL Library, transferred a copy of their original guide to HUSL Library for independent development.  HUSL Library's edition of the guide is accessible through our website, where you’re currently viewing it.

The following law librarians at Georgetown Law Library created the original guide that was the basis for HUSL Library’s version:

  • Kristina Alayan - Head of Reference 
  • Heather Casey - International & Foreign Law Reference Librarian
  • Rachel Jorgensen - Reference Librarian
  • Barbara Monroe - Reference Librarian

The Georgetown Law Library's original guide is available here:

Victoria Capatosto oversaw the development of HUSL Library's edition of the guide while working at HUSL between May 2016 through January 2022, with assistance from LIS graduate student interns and law students working at HUSL Library. 

  • During the Fall 2019 semester Claire Eldredge-Burns, HUSL Library’s remote public services LIS graduate student intern, completed extensive work to incorporate this guide into HUSL Library’s collection.  Claire transformed the look and feel of this guide, implemented a protocol for image incorporation, and conducted a massive resource evaluation, successfully replacing Georgetown Law Library resources with HUSL Library resources.
  • During the Spring 2020 semester Tori Stanek, HUSL Library's remote public services LIS graduate student intern, updated existing research, added in more HUSL resources, and edited the prose to fit the tone of Howard University. She also created new tabs on the Black Panther Party and the Womanist Movement.
  • During the Summer 2020 semester Mike Poveromo, HUSL Library's remote public services LIS graduate student intern, created a new tab on the Black Lives Matter Movement and the created the Get Involved page.
  • During the Summer 2020 semester John Miller, HUSL Library's remote public services LIS graduate student intern, created an extensive new section on Indigenous Peoples' Civil Rights, covering (1) Prior to 1492, (2) the Treaty Era, (3) the Removal Era, (4) Reservation Era, (5) the Allotment and Assimilation Era, (6) the Self-Government Era, (7) the Termination Era, and (8) the Self-Determination Era.
  • During the Fall 2020 semester Yaa McNeil, HUSL Library's Research Fellow, created a new section on Transgender Rights in the United States.
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