The United States was founded on the idea that men were created equal and had a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. However, the ideals of the social structure of the US were not translated into its reality. The US contradicted their core beliefs with their actual practices. The US was and is still facing an identity crisis. This identity crisis does not affect a single person, instead, it hurts a whole group of people that were abused, exploited, and marginalized in society. In order to fix the damage done by this identity crisis, the US must provide rights that the government must protect to each and every citizen. Thus, creating the concept of “civil rights”. Civil rights helps bridge the gap between the American ideals and the American reality, in order to create an overlap between the former and the latter.
Section I: American Ideals
The Enlightenment provided concepts and ideas that helped the US figure out their core beliefs. These beliefs can be found in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was a document that simply stated the 13 colonies were leaving the British Empire due to the fact that the British had infringed upon the colonists’ rights as British citizens. In the Declaration, the document included ideas rooted from the Enlightenment, especially from John Locke. The Declaration of Independence included his ideas of men having inalienable rights. In other words, he believed men had the right to life, liberty, and property. Another concept found in the Declaration of Independence, would be the social contract, which essentially means that the government should be made, by, of, and for the people.
The right to life, liberty, and property is fundamental to the core beliefs of the US. This phrase suggests that everyone has a right to be alive, ownership of one’s own labor, and the ownership of land that allows one to make work productive. The right to property is the means of liberty. These are rights that no one is able to take from anyone else, which includes the government. If everyone has these inalienable rights, this suggests that all men are created equal. If each man has these basic rights available to them, this means that no one deserves to start with more or less than anyone else. Everyone starts with the same given tools and rules. Ideally, no one should have an advantage or disadvantage over anyone else.
The social contract, or the idea that government should be created to protect the inalienable rights of its citizens. In order to achieve this, a government must be made by, of, and for the people. This idea reinforces the idea of democracy, and the laws made in the land reflect the ideals of the people as a whole. Ideally, the laws created by the people should benefit and protect individual’s inalienable rights.
The concept of inalienable rights, and the social contract is critical to civil rights. These concepts offer the premise of any civil rights argument. However, civil rights can only exist if there are inequalities present in society, and in order to level the playing field for all people to have equal opportunity to success. Civil rights are merely the tools to closing the gaps between inequality. Without inequality,
civil rights would not be needed, nor exist. However, this was never the case. Civil rights is the solution, while inequality is the problem.
Section II: Reality
When the Declaration of Independence was created, the founding fathers claimed they value that all men had inalienable right, however, a portion of them also practiced slavery, which went against the right to liberty. Once the colonies won its independence from Great Britain, the colonists had to structure their government. Their first attempt was Articles of Confederation, however, that document failed miserably. The Constitution was later developed that outlined how the US government should be structured. In this document, it shows the reality of the US.
Not only did the Constitution lay the foundation for the American government, but it also included laws protecting slavery.
There were multiple clauses in the Constitution that protected and upheld slavery. The Three-Fifths Clause stated that each slave was worth three-fifths of a person. This idea promoted the idea that blacks were not as valuable or equal as free whites. The Slave Trade Clause prohibited Congress from debating slavery for the next 20 years. This prohibited Congress from making any laws combating slavery for a span of 20 years. The Fugitive Slave Clause required that if a slave does escape to the north, the north is required to bring back the escapee to their rightful owner. This labeled African Americans as slaves no matter where they went. They were always considered property. Slaves were first and foremost property, above anything else. These laws protected the institution of slavery in the south. Not only were these laws racist, but these laws contradicted the ideals promoted in the Declaration of Independence.
As a result, there was a disconnect between the American ideal, and the American reality. The American idea is rooted in equality, while the Constitution promoted inequality. The Declaration called for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (property). The Constitution violated the right to liberty to slaves. Slaves were not allowed to own their own work, nor their own land. The structure created in the Constitution set up a system that blacks were to be treated as property, and to ultimately disadvantage them, while benefiting the predominantly white, slave holders. Essentially, the US were becoming hypocrites to their own beliefs. As a result, this contradiction led to the rights of many African Americans being taken away for being who they are. The Constitution placed the perseverance of the union on top of the lives of many black people.
Section III: Civil Rights
Civil rights are rights that the government must do for you. Civil rights helps ensure that individuals are given the same rights as the rest of the people in society. However, in order to bring about any type of change, one must identify an issue in society. In the context of this point in history, the issue is seen in the contradiction of inalienable rights given to all men, and slavery. In order to change this contradiction, there must be overlap in the ideals and in the reality of the United States. Although an argument can always be made, it requires action to bring about change.
Argument and action go hand in hand. No true change can happen if one is absent. Arguments for social change truly do not matter if they do not leave the ivory tower. However, action without an argument or goal will lead to chaos. If one wants to bring out change, one must have an argument for why they believe in something. A tool for civil rights is using the paradigm against itself. In other words, one should leverage the ideals. This means that one should call out the inconsistency in belief and reality, and share it with the rest of society. Leveraging ideals pushes for change in the right direction. It identifies the issue, and it suggests that there needs to be a change towards the ideal belief. Through this, it acknowledges that there is an inequality and if a society claims to hold a type of belief, they should be held accountable. Once an argument is made, action can now take place. Action with a purpose in the real world is the conduit for social change. A movement can now take place and actually push for change. There are three types of movement building: inspirational, organizational, and confrontational. Inspiring people is what leads people to find the passion for change. It is pure passion. Organizational helps people organize and create a common goal people can rally behind, as well as strategize how they should fight and change the system. Confrontational allows for groups to face inequality head on whether it is supporting policy change, or protesting. However, the greatest tactic to a successful movement is to hit the powerful at their weaknesses. This makes sure the people who hold the power know they are not invincible. There is an opportunity to fall if there is not a change within the system. Although it may not be easy, it may be one of the most effective tactics bringing about change.
Civil rights is an ongoing challenge for oppressed groups even today. However, in order to change oppressive systems, it must be systematic. Civil rights are ways of closing inequalities among people. Holistically, civil rights make sure that the ideals line up with the realities. This is an ongoing process that will always continue.