In August of 1963, the United States was swept up in unprecedented mass mobilization. Two hundred thousand Americans—black, white, rich, and poor from across the nation—poured into the National Mall in Washington, D.C. armed with picket signs, freedom songs, and a fervent dedication to the fight for equality before the law. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the venue at which Martin Luther King Jr. uttered his famed “I have a dream” incantation, was a watershed moment in the long and tumultuous civil rights struggle in the United States.

It set forth a new genre of civil rights activism and became a template for subsequent generations of political protest around the globe. Indeed, over the course of the ensuing decade, university students in France aligned themselves with trade union workers to subvert the Gaullist regime, the military dictatorship in Brazil struggled to withstand the escalating guerilla warfare leveled against it, and opposition to the Vietnam War simmered across the United States, London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome.

Today, five decades after the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, the international community’s gaze remains fixed on Cairo and the tumultuous rise and fall of the pro-Morsi protest camps erected in Tahrir Square this summer. As the world comes to grips with the recurring stumbling blocks to stable, responsible governance in transitional democracies in the Middle East, it is an apt time to take stock of what civil rights means to Americans and in the modern world.

The Long March

Civil unrest around the world and civil rights activism in the United States in particular, is all but moribund. Americans still take to the streets, driven by the compulsion to close the gap between the rhetoric of freedom emanating from the nation’s founding documents and the social reality that surrounds us.

In July of this past summer, several hundred protestors amassed outside of the federal courthouse in Washington demanding justice for the murdered Trayvon Martin in the days immediately following George Zimmerman’s acquittal. As pockets of protestors across the nation rallied and chanted, there were glimmers of the old solidarity that their predecessors touted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the seminal anti-discrimination legislation in the 20th century United States, the tenor of civil rights activism has, inevitably, changed. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated as the indefatigable political and spiritual leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, in our historical moment, the defenseless Trayvon Martin has become the new face of civil rights justice. Dr. King was a symbol of renewed agency for marginalized communities, while Trayvon Martin is a harrowing reminder of the ongoing victimization of these communities in the United States today.

The national understanding of what “civil rights” means has evolved in step with social reality, thus altering the tenor of political discourse. The modern day civil rights struggle, though rooted deeply in the vocabulary of race relations, is not exclusively defined by it, as racism is no longer a pervasive social ill. It has balkanized into more disparate issue areas, ranging from the reformation of the criminal justice system to the ongoing pursuit of gender equity in the workplace, after the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Moreover, civil rights activism is no longer undergirded by sweeping institutional networks, as evidenced by the decline of civic groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality.

The events of this past summer have converged to underscore the inevitability of change in the ways in which people engage with their governments. Old conceptions of civil rights are continuing to change in our increasingly individualistic, yet internationalized and interconnected world. But in the midst of this change, it is all the more important to revisit its conceptual frameworks and to remain sympathetic to the enduring human compulsion toward the defense of basic civil liberties.

The Times They are a-Changin’

Civil rights, by definition, are enforceable privileges granted to all citizens of a democratic state. The freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, enshrined in the 1791 Bill of Rights, constitute the lifeblood of American political life. Racial discrimination once drove a seemingly insurmountable wedge between the ideals delineated in the Bill of Rights and the social reality confronting African Americans living in the segregated South during the 1950s.

Indeed, the civil rights struggle has deep roots in the American experience. The question of slavery bedeviled constitutional debate from the nation’s founding—a debate that ultimately devolved into civil war. From the Civil war, the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave legal clout to the pervasive “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws, set the stage for the relentless civil rights activity of the mid-20th century. Social change came slowly and painfully, through concerted social organization, court rulings, and of course, legislation.

The passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the towering legislative achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, was an affirmation of the unique ability of the American people to shape the way in which they are governed by vocalizing their needs. Congress initially enacted the law to counteract the state-imposed tests—a poorly concealed vehicle for denying large portions of the black community the vote—to which African Americans were being subjected throughout the segregated South.

In June of this past summer, the Supreme Court dusted off the old civil rights legislation to re-evaluate the role of the federal government’s oversight of state election laws, in light of the changed demographics and social reality of Southern states. The court ultimately struck down critical aspects of the law in a five-to-four vote. Notably, the justices deemed Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act—the formula the federal government used to determine which states and counties are subject to continued federal oversight—to be unconstitutional. In the opinion of the court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the current coverage system is “based on 40-year-old facts that have no logical relationship to the present day.”

Liberally inclined commentators have made much of the Supreme Court’s decision to depart from the coverage formula stipulated in the Voting Rights Act. Some scholars have suggested that the decision marks the end of the civil rights era, while others—including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—argue that the United States is still in the thick of the struggle for fairness in national elections.

The Supreme Court’s act of striking down the law, casting it as an outmoded infringement on states’ rights, has certainly altered the political playing field for civil rights activism. With the ruling comes the implication that future civil rights battles in the United States—whether directly related to voting rights, the most basic civil right in a democracy, or not—will be shaped by the judicial branch.

Summer of Discontent

While fifty-year-old civil rights legislation was being overturned this summer in the United States, protests escalated into sweeping movements around the world. Countries beleaguered by the unhappy confluence of immigration concerns, declining living standards, and high rates of unemployment, have suffered a particularly tumultuous summer.

In Sa?n Paolo, Brazil—a nation that has prided itself on having cast off its authoritarian legacy and achieved democracy within the past thirty years—unrest began in a frivolous manner. Observers and political commentators, once flummoxed by the protests that exploded across the city in response to the equivalent of a nine-cent increase in public transportation fares, soon saw political passions devolve into street violence. A video clip of a Brazilian journalist being arrested for the posession of a bottle of vinegar, a substance used to protect against tear gas fumes, emerged as a rallying point for the movement, as police brutality stoked the flames of public discontent.

The protests, dubbed the “V for Vinegar” movement or “Salad Revolution,” protests spread to a dozen state capitals by June of this summer. Approximately 250,000 men and women took to the streets across the country in subsequent days as the movement’s demands grew more varied. Through chants and banners, protesters condemned corruption and conveyed their discontentment with rising prices and the quality of schools and hospitals, as well as the cost of next year’s World Cup, for which Brazil will spend US$3 billion on stadiums alone.

Meanwhile, protests also convulsed Turkey over the course of the summer, as well-read and cosmopolitan young adults aired their frustration with what they perceive to be the increasing paternalism of their government. Notably, in the past year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued edicts against everything from wearing red lipstick to kissing in public, and also imposed regulations on the number of children that Turkish women can bear.

Over the course of the past few months, blogs and popular websites emerged as vehicles for protesting the governments’ crackdowns, as they bristled with harrowing images of bloodied protesters. Bloggers have intertwined the protest narratives of Brazil and Turkey, as one dedicated “V for Vinegar” website reads: “Brazil and Turkey are thousands of kilometers away from each other, but they have something in common: both countries went out to the streets to protest for their rights as citizens and are now struggling against the excessive violence and oppression from the police.” Such public discourse underscored the extent to which young protestors in both countries feel disenfranchised by their authoritarian governments, inadequately represented, and alienated from political participation.


The concept of civil rights has become much more amorphous in our modern world, as it is no longer mediated by the vocabulary of race relations or military dictatorships. As the years wear on, the Civil Rights Movement is turning into something of a civic fairy tale.

It is certainly worth reflecting on a time when activists, who had an inexorable faith in the notion that “all men are created equal,” fought passionately for their rights. Today, a wide range of interest groups are scrambling to cast their respective causes as the new front lines of civil rights activism. For instance, as the fight over same-sex marriage has raged in the courts, the media and gay activists are invoking the rhetoric and imagery of the civil-rights battles. Activists who gathered at the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington demanded equality for gays, Latinos, the poor, and the disabled, as well as for voting rights, organized labor, and immigration policies. Since the nation’s founding, Congress has enacted statutes to combat discrimination. However, in our historical moment, the courts—through aggressive interpretation of the Constitution—will be the ultimate arbiter of civil rights legislation, thus setting the tone of future political activism.