Civil Rights: An American History—Book Introduction

11 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2018

See all articles by Christopher W. Schmidt

Christopher W. Schmidt

Chicago-Kent College of Law; American Bar Foundation

Date Written: January 2018


This book is a history of how Americans have struggled over the meaning of civil rights from the Civil War through today. I explain how a label initially deployed in the aftermath of the Civil War as a term of legal categorization, valued (and challenged) as much for what it excluded as for what it protected, morphed into something quite different in the twentieth century. A narrow term of law became, in the 1940s, an agenda for policy reform and then, in the 1960s, a rallying cry for a social movement. Yet even as the movement for this new, emboldened idea of civil rights remade American life and law, progressive activists challenged its perceived limitations. They argued that civil rights reforms failed to break down the entrenched inequalities that still defined American society, that what was needed was a different mindset, more ambitious legal tools, and more far-reaching labels, such as social and human rights. In the years following the civil rights movement, conservatives began to describe their own agenda of law-and-order policies, ending affirmative action, and opposing abortion as protecting civil rights. Liberals denounced what they saw as the illegitimate cooptation of the term, while at the same time framing their own causes—equal rights for women, the disabled, LGBT people—as new battles for civil rights.

The premise of Civil Rights: An American History is that there has never been a singular, unchanging definition of civil rights. My goal is to reconstruct the concept in all its complexity; to not dismiss paradox or contradiction as errors or mistakes but to use them to help illuminate the public meaning of civil rights. I want to excavate the term as it was used and contested, redefined and redeployed. On a more general level, this book offers a case study of how the words and categories by which we understand our world become objects of contestation and points of leverage for social, political, and legal action.

Civil rights has become one of the most powerful and contested terms of our present-day struggles. Its power lies in its distinctive blend of abstract idealism and historical specificity. One cannot speak of civil rights without referencing the history of civil rights, without placing today’s struggles alongside past struggles. To debate the meaning of civil rights today is to debate the history of civil rights in America. This book provides the first comprehensive account of that history.

Keywords: civil rights, legal history, Reconstruction, civil rights movement, civil liberties, social rights, human rights, civil rights laws

Suggested Citation

Schmidt, Christopher W., Civil Rights: An American History—Book Introduction (January 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Christopher W. Schmidt (Contact Author)

Chicago-Kent College of Law ( email )

565 W. Adams St.
Chicago, IL 60661-3691
United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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