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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.