Civil rights have been generally defined as affirmative legal promises governments make to protect the privileges and power of a specified group of people or citizens of a nation. Civil rights movements have been the way by which many marginalized groups have gained legal protection against discriminatory actions. The laws protecting the civil rights of citizens may be written or implied. Examples of such written laws in the United States are constitutional amendments such as the 13th Amendment outlawing the enslavement of peoples and the 19th Amendment protecting the right for women to vote. In a self-proclaimed democracy such as the United States, these rights have been revered as essential components of a just society. The right to “life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness,” for example, is a phrase well known to many Americans. The United States’ own history, however, reveals the violation of these civil rights for multiple communities defined by racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and religious group memberships among others.
To understand the needs and become advocates in the struggles of marginalized groups, mental health providers must first have a foundation and knowledge of the histories of these groups. The following is an outline of historical civil rights violations of marginalized groups in the United States and subsequent movements fighting for the protection of those rights.
History of Marginalized Groups
African Americans, more than any other group, have been at the center of civil struggles throughout U.S. history. Their struggle for liberty began with the first law passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1661 making persons of African descent slaves for the duration of their lives. The U.S. Constitution implicitly recognized the right of White landowners to hold slaves; it was not until the implementation of the 13th Amendment of 1865 that slavery and involuntary servitude were outlawed. Jim Crow laws helped circumvent these rights by allowing the virtual enslavement of poor Blacks through sharecropping and legalized segregation of schools, transportation, and public accommodations well into the 20th century. The 14th Amendment of 1868, intending to protect emancipated slaves from the physical and legal retaliation of their former masters, also failed to do so as African Americans were persecuted by organized terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Following the Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, legal segregation and the principle of “separate but equal” were sanctioned by the law. By far the most influential civil rights organization in the African American movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pressed the issue of equality all the way back to the Supreme Court. Today the legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954 demanding the desegregation of public schools helps protect the rights of people of color; women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) persons; and persons with disabilities. The leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks, were the inspiration for tactics and concepts that sparked and empowered subsequent movements for women, Latinos/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, the LGBT community, and the poor.
Asian Americans have not only been subject to violations of civil right liberties, but they systemically have been the direct target of such injustice. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, was enacted to ensure that Asians did not become naturalized citizens and could not vote. The Immigration Act of 1924 further barred all Asians ineligible for American citizenship from entering the United States. The creation of “Chinatowns” in many coastal cities is largely a result of the denial of full participation in society for early Asian immigrants. The forced relocation and internment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II is one of the most atrocious violations of the civil rights of Asian Americans in U.S. history. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese government in December 1941, Japanese Americans were forced to sacrifice their livelihoods and were imprisoned in internment camps, where living conditions risked their health and family unity. Although the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided an official government apology and monetary reparations for internee survivors, the wound of this violation remains open in the hearts of many Asian Americans today.
In the 1960s Asian American activists joined other groups of color in the fight for racial equality and social justice, demanding the United States take notice of what became known as the Yellow Power movement. The Asian American movement of the 1960s was led primarily by college-age students of Chinese and Japanese descent seeking to be recognized by the largely White anti-Vietnam War movement of the time. One of the most important legacies of the movement has been the implementation of Asian American studies across institutions of education. Today Asian American activists continue to struggle for political, economic, and cultural inclusion and equality.
Native Americans/American Indians
The lives of Native Americans, also referred to as American Indians, and their struggle for civil rights began with the arrival of the first Europeans on the Western Hemisphere. Stripped of the land on which they lived, Native Americans were driven by gunpoint on harsh and arduous journeys to Indian Territories. From 1838 to 1839, more than 16,000 Cherokees were driven from their homeland; more than one fourth of these people died in the march that has become known as the Trail of Tears. Cruel measures of forced assimilation, often led by missionaries, endorsed the removal of young Natives from their families into boarding schools, where tribal customs and use of language were subject to severe punishment. It was not until the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that Native Americans were given the right to a system by which tribes could autonomously adopt representative, democratic institutions in their traditional forms of government. Although a setback of these rights occurred with the communist scare after World War II, the civil rights movement also provided opportunities for the improvement of civil rights for Native Americans. Pan-Indian organizations such as the American Indian Movement embraced the confrontation tactics practiced successfully by African Americans during the 1960s. The American Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 further guaranteed American Indians living under tribal governments many rights and liberties of other Americans. The struggle of American Indians continues, however, as socioeconomic disparities continue to maintain poverty, poor health, and poor education among this population.
Latino/as have been the targets of violent attacks based on their race/ethnicity leading to a struggle for civil rights similar to those of other marginalized groups. The heterogeneity of this population, however, has resulted in a history often separated by struggles by nationalities. For example, Mexican Americans (also known as Chicanos/as) have a longstanding history on U.S. soil and have helped fight for the labor rights of people across racial lines. Cesar Chavez organized and led migrant farm laborers with the United Farm Workers union movement by creating community service programs, emphasizing nonviolence, and articulating the needs and rights of farm workers. The young Brown Berets of the 1960s aimed to protect Chicano/a youth from police harassment. Although Puerto Rico was included as a U.S. territory in 1917, Puerto Ricans continue to be denied voting rights, which is a concern for some Puerto Rican Americans. The most prominent struggle that the Latino/a community continues to face is the recognition of the rights of large numbers of Latino/a immigrants living in the United States. Basic rights such as provision of health care, fair wages, and legal protection continue to be denied this growing population.
The women’s movements in the United States were heavily influenced by the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. The political rights of women were virtually nonexistent prior to the 19th century to the extent that wives were denied ownership of property, prohibited from leaving their husbands, and barred from custodial rights to their children. The movement for women’s rights has been active since the 1700s and continues today with historical works from Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Taylor, Betty Friedan, Sara Evans, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks, among others. Advocates for woman’s rights have successfully demanded a wide variety of civil liberties, such as the right to vote, legalization of abortion, the right to initiate divorce, and the entrance of women to the political and labor workforce, which have had a lasting impact on issues of education, religion, sexuality, and gender identity. Feminists today continue to advocate for economic, political, and social equality and an end to oppressive conditions for women of all races.
Other Marginalized Groups
The LGBT community continues to fight for equality for all regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Groups such as Henry Gerber’s Society for Human Rights of 1924 have been fighting for “gay rights” for nearly a century. The federal and some state governments continue to resist support of LGBT civil rights legislation. In 2007, sexual and gender identity are not covered by federal civil rights codes or protected under the laws against hate crimes. Although some individual states have civil union clauses, the struggle for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages and unions continues, as does discrimination against the LGBT community legally and socially across most of the country.
In an effort to raise awareness of poverty in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr. and colleagues launched the Poor People’s Campaign. The movement mobilized African Americans, Native Americans, Whites, and Mexican Americans to lobby Congress for social and economic equality. Large numbers of Americans continue to live below the poverty level today. The most visible members of this community are the homeless, a population disproportionately stricken with mental illness. Despite the dire needs of this marginalized group, the civil rights of the poor are often ignored by a nation still hostage to the myth of the American dream and equally blind upward mobility.
Mental Health Civil Rights
Historical traumas have left members of these marginalized groups weary of the institutionalized systems that have not only failed them but have often been the perpetrators of their plights. Mental health providers are faced with the responsibility of healing remnants of these historical wounds, and they are encouraged to serve as social advocates in continuing to demand equal rights for those peoples to whom they are still denied. The call for the multicultural competence of all counselors working with marginalized groups is, in itself, a civil rights movement. It is the right of every individual living in the United States to be met with culturally competent mental health providers when seeking treatment. As researchers, practitioners, and educators, counselors at large are part of a movement whose goal is to recognize and eradicate the ways in which racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination continue to affect members of marginalized groups today.
- Bradley, D., & Fishkin, S. F. (1998). The encyclopedia of civil rights in America. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.
- Martin, W. E., & Sullivan, P. (Eds.). (2000). Civil rights in the United States. New York: Macmillan Reference USA.
- Zinn, H. (2005). A people’s history of the United States: 1492 to present (2nd ed.). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.