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2021

Civil rights guarantee our rights as individuals and form an essential part of our democracy. The United States has a long history of endeavoring to define, secure, and protect the civil rights of Americans.

Black and white photograph of group of marchers with signs at the March on Washington, 1963

Civil Rights March on Washington, DC,  August 28, 1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, Record Group 306, National Archives Identifier 542044

The National Archives holds records that document civil and social rights movements, illustrate how individuals and groups asserted their rights, and include court records, decisions, and case files that have expanded civil rights in the United States. While the topic of Civil Rights runs the entire history of the United States and overlaps with many other areas of research, here are a few of the major civil rights court cases, decisions, and acts that can be found in the National Archives Catalog.
Radiogram concerning Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. The image featured the RCA logo at the top with a picture of Lee in the upper left hand corner.

Radiogram about Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, 6/26/1937. National Archives Identifier 197859987
The Chinese Exclusion Act limited rights of Chinese American laborers and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. Under this act, Lee was not a citizen, and therefore was unable to vote. Yet she and others still fought for universal suffrage even without the ability to benefit directly from its success.

Black and white photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the March on Washington. A group of men watch and listen.
Black and white photograph of a man in a clergy collar holding a sign advocating for voting rights
L: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. Records of the U.S. Information Agency, Record Group 306. National Archives Identifier 542014
R: Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [A man holding a sign that reads "We Demand Voting Rights Now!"], 8/28/1963. National Archives Identifier 542036
Voting Rights

Voting Rights Act of 1965

Considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, was necessary to remove state and local barriers that prevented African Americans from voting in many southern states after the Civil War. Learn more on DocsTeach.

First page of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 document with public law stamp at top
Signature page of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 document, showing Lyndon Johnson's signature

Act of August 6, 1965, Public Law 89-110, 79 STAT 437, Which Enforced the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, 8/6/1965. National Archives Identifier 299909

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Dred Scott was an enslaved man that sued his owners for his freedom after he had been taken from Missouri to Illinois, claiming that he had automatically been freed once crossing into a territory where slavery was illegal. In this ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that slaves were not citizens of the United States and, therefore, could not expect any protection from the Federal Government or the courts. The opinion also stated that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a Federal territory. Learn more on DocsTeach.

Handwritten document of the judgement in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857

Judgment in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 3/6/1857. National Archives Identifier 301674

Learn more about the Laws and Court Cases related to Voting Rights.

Education

Mendez v. Westminster

Mendez v. Westminster School District landed an important blow to school segregation in California. And it underscored that the struggle for civil rights in America crossed regional, racial, and ethnic lines. Learn more on DocsTeach.

First page of the petition in Mendez v. Westminster
Second page of the petition in Mendez v. Westminster

Gonzalo Mendez et al v. Westminster School District of Orange County et al. This Petition summarizes the complaint made by several parents of children in the Westminster, Garden Grove, and El Modeno School Districts and the City of Santa Ana schools. It charges that the schools were violating students' civil rights by segregating students of "Mexican and Latin" ancestry in separate schools. National Archives Identifier 294940

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

On May 17, 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (five separate cases consolidated under a single name), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separate but equal public schools violated the 14th Amendment. A year later in what is now referred to as “Brown II,” Chief Justice Warren required that the students be “admit[ted] to public schools on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed.”

First page of the judgement in the Supreme Court Decision for Brown V. Board of Education
Reverse page of judgement in the Supreme Court Decision for Brown v. Board of Education, dated May 31, 1955

Judgement in the Supreme Court Decision for Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., 5/31/1955 National Archives Identifier 596300

Morgan v. Hennigan

In 1972, the parents of African American children brought a class action lawsuit alleging that the Boston School Committee violated the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution by a deliberate policy of racial segregation in the Boston Public Schools. Learn more about this case on the Rediscovering Black History blog: Morgan V. Hennigan: Desegregation of Boston Public Schools.

First page of the Morgan v. Hennigan Complaint document

Tallulah Morgan et al. v. James W. Hennigan et al. Complaint. National Archives Identifier 4713867

View the full case file in the National Archives Catalog.

Explore more documents related to school desegregation on DocsTeach.

Marriage Rights

Loving v. Virginia

Loving v. Virginia (1967) was a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Chief Justice Earl Warren authorized the court’s opinion, stating: “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Appeal for Loving V. Virginia, 1966

Loving v. Virginia Appeal, 5/27/1966. National Archives Identifier 7873520

Learn more on the Prologue blog, The Fight for the Right to Marry: The Loving v. Virginia Case, and on the Rediscovering Black History blog, Virginia is for the Lovings.

Disability Rights

File for Deborah Sampson Gannett
During the American Revolution, Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man and enlisted, under the name of Robert Shurtleff, in the Continental Army under the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She fought in several battles before her true identity was discovered following an injury. In 1809, after 20 years of petitioning the federal government, she received a disability pension of four dollars per month. Learn more on DocsTeach.

Page within Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application for Deborah Gannett

Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application File S 32722, Deborah Gannett, Mass. National Archives Identifier 54636851

From personal letters to historic legislation, records from the Presidential Libraries provide insight into efforts over the past century to establish programs and to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Learn more on the Americans with Disabilities Act web page.

For further research, resources at the National Archives provide a variety of documents, photographs, articles, and other educational resources covering many different topics related to civil rights, including slavery, racism, citizenship, women’s independece, immigration, and more.

Black and white photograph of group of young Japanese Americas at Poston, Arizona war relocation center.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, relocating 117,000 Japanese Americans. Photograph, Poston, Arizona, January 4, 1943. Central Photographic File of the War Relocation Authority National Archives. National Archives Identifier 536627

Browse textual, photographic, motion pictures and electronic records with the Black History Guide: Civil Rights. Additionally, explore Civil Rights Cases held at the National Archives at Chicago.

Learn more about photographs and other materials in the custody of the Still Picture Branch including images documenting the Civil Rights Movement and other social movements in the United States.

Black and white photograph of young women together at the March on Washington.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Young women at the march, 8/28/1963. National Archives Identifier 542022

Black and white photograph of group of marchers resting on the grass at the March on Washington. Two men in suits smile at the camera. One man holds a sign above both of their heads for shade.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Marchers sitting on the grass, 8/28/1963. National Archives Identifier 542009

For primary sources, teaching activities and more, explore DocsTeach: Rights in America.

Handwritten appeal request from Lenny Bruce, 1964

Appeal Request from Lenny Bruce, December 15, 1964. Lenny Bruce vs Hon. John M. Murtagh, Criminal Court of the City of New York: Special Sessions: County of New York. National Archives Identifier 2641487
After his conviction, Lenny Bruce appealed, claiming that his rights to due process, guaranteed under the 14th Amendment, were violated. The appeal overturned his conviction, but only after Bruce had died on August 3, 1966.

Aurelia S. Browder et al. v. W. A. Gayle et al.

This case file contains documents resulting from a Federal court suit that challenged segregation within Montgomery, Alabama's public transportation system. The case is renowned for its relation to the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Although not a party to the case, Rosa Parks' arrest record and fingerprints are exhibits to the case. The plaintiffs in this case were Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith, all of whom had been either arrested for refusing to give up their seats to white passengers or harmed by being forced to comply with segregation codes. In this case, the three-judge panel ruled Montgomery segregation codes unconstitutional due to their violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed the District Court's judgment.

First page of civil case file for Browder v. Gayle
Exhibit from Browder v. Gayle case file showing Rosa Parks fingerprint card

Civil Case FIles, 9/1938-11/26/1968. Aurelia S. Browder et al. v. W. A. Gayle et al., No. 1147. National Archives Identifier 279205

Civil Rights Act of 1964

This act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, made employment discrimination illegal, and enforced the constitutional right to vote. It was the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Learn more on DocsTeach.

First page of Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964, 7/2/1964. National Archives Identifier 299891

Start your research on History Hub

Have a question? Find your answer here on History Hub!

For those looking to conduct research or learn more about Civil Rights records and resources, we encourage you to browse recent posts and questions on History Hub:

Civil Rights Collection on GIPHY

Have you seen our new Civil Rights collection on GIPHY?  Find historic footage of First-Time Voters, Civil Rights Marchers, and more!

Black and white animated GIF from the March on Washington. A little boy sits on a man's shoulders and claps as he goes by
Scene from the "March on Washington," August 1963

It’s just one of several new GIF collections in the National Archives’ GIPHY channel, which just surpassed 3 Billion total cumulative views! 

Screenshot of National Archives account page on GIPHY showing the African American History GIF collection

The channel features hundreds of vintage animated GIFs featuring everything from fun retro patents to famous prominent Americans.

Animated gif of one wheeled vehicle patent. The image shows the cyclist pedaling across the page
One-Wheeled Velocipede Patent
Animated gif of Sammy Davis, Jr. performing on stage. His back is to the crowd, and he turns around to face the crowd while holding a microphone
Sammy Davis, Jr. performs at a USO show, ca. 1972.

The Catalog Newsletter

Learn about newly added records and receive tips on using the Catalog's features, functionality, and guides. The National Archives Catalog is the online public portal to our records where you can learn more about our holdings. This email newsletter is delivered on a biweekly basis. Subscribe to the National Archives Catalog Newsletter

Join us in a celebration of African American History Month! The National Archives holds a wealth of materials documenting the African American experience. We invite you to learn more about the extraordinary contributions of African Americans to United States history and culture through online resources, research guides, and upcoming events and programs.

Photograph of Dr. Roscoe Brown, Jr, a Tuskegee Airman, signing the exterior of a plane. Dr. Brown is wearing a brown leather jacket with an American flag on the sleeve. A videographer is filming Dr. Brown in the background.
Black and white photograph of women from the WAC battalion during a parade in Rouen, France

L: Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., member Tuskegee Airmen, signs a canopy modeled after his P51 D Mustang during a reception following unveiling ceremonies, 5/18/1996. National Archives Identifier 6497047
R: Photograph of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in France, 5/27/1945. National Archives Identifier 175539237

Guide to Black History

In 1984, to support the growing demand for knowledge of African American history, Dr. Debra Newman Ham, with the help of several other colleagues, took on the responsibility of compiling a guide to Black history records at the National Archives. With the publication of Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives, NARA became recognized as one of the primary sources for African American historical documents. Here you will find records, information, research tools and resources on topics such as Civil Rights, Education, Diaspora, Women, and more.

Photograph of a vote registration drive. Two women behind a desk assist another woman with registration
Black and white photograph of a man with a long mustache holding a sign in each hand. One sign contains 6 stars and the other sign contains 5 stars, representing his eleven sons in military service

L: Vote Registration Drive National Archives Identifier 556258
R: Ike Sims of Atlanta, Georgia, 87 years old, has eleven sons in the service. National Archives Identifier 533583

In addition, the African American History research page provides archives resources, blog posts and articles, featured records, public programs, subject portals, and more. Subject portals on topics such as Black Power, Voting Rights, and World War I highlight selected records, guidance for researchers, and additional resources for further study.

Screenshot of subject portals on African American History page

For the latest updates, subscribe to the Rediscovering Black History blog! Learn more about the vast amount of records at the National Archives and Presidential Libraries related to the African American experience.

The National Archives will present more African American History Month programs throughout the month of February. All programs are free and open to the public and available for viewing on the National Archives YouTube channel.

Start your research on History Hub

For those looking to conduct research on African American History, we encourage you to browse recent posts and questions in History Hub's African American Records community:


Photograph of a group of students socializing at the George Westinghouse High School
Image of map and program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A map of the Washington Mall is on the left side and a program of events is on the right side of the page

L: At the George Westinghouse High School. National Archives Identifier 553804 
R: March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. National Archives Identifier 26080947

Citizen Archivist Transcription Mission:
African American History

Join us as a Citizen Archivist and help make records more searchable and findable in the Catalog! For this Citizen Archivist mission, explore and help transcribe records in the Catalog documenting African American History. Every word you transcribe helps unlock history.

Black and white photograph of a group of African American infantry men arriving in New York City. The men are waving and cheering

The famous 369th arrive in New York City. Members of the 369th colored infantry, formerly 15th New York regulars. "Back to little old New York."  National Archives Identifier 26431290

How many records can you transcribe? Get started transcribing now.
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The Catalog Newsletter

Learn about newly added records and receive tips on using the Catalog's features, functionality, and guides. The National Archives Catalog is the online public portal to our records where you can learn more about our holdings. This email newsletter is delivered on a biweekly basis. Subscribe to the National Archives Catalog Newsletter