Which Civil Rights Movements Have Been Most Important?

civil rights movement

Civil rights movements, while often focusing on different characteristics of marginalized groups, generally have a similar goal: equal opportunity and protection under the law. Early movements focused solely on the right to vote or the right to public education, but over time the meaning of civil rights expanded to include equal rights for racial minorities, women, and LGBTQ2+ communities, among others. From the first women’s rights suffrage movements in the United States in the 1920s to today’s LGBTQ2+ rights movements, each movement inspired the next and encouraged marginalized groups to fight for their rights.

Resistance movement in India

The civil rights movement in India was aimed at national liberation from British rule. The independence movement, which began as early as the 1850s, achieved widespread support and further mobilization under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Civil disobedience, non-cooperation initiatives and massive public demonstrations resulted in a violent backlash, with hundreds of arrests and Gandhi’s imprisonment. The fighting lasted for several decades, but India finally gained full independence in 1947.

 Civil rights movement in the United States

The civil rights movement in the United States of America, driven by the situation of oppression of the African-American population, aimed to end discrimination against black people. Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in the country, the African-American population was systematically marginalized and was often subjected to extreme violence.

The movement, which began in the 1950s, manifested itself mainly in local initiatives in the form of marches, boycotts, and civil disobedience, but its impact was national. Local movements forced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave equal voting rights and promised to end discrimination. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major victory for this movement and was the unofficial “endgame,” the black community continues to fight for civil rights today. Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely known as the most important figure in the movement.

South African Apartheid

The civil rights movement in South Africa ended the system of racial segregation in the country, commonly known as apartheid. The movement, led by Nelson Mandela, which began in the 1940s, faced significant government pressure that ended with the imprisonment of many of its leaders. After several decades of struggle, pressure from within and from the international community, the imprisoned leaders were released and new measures were approved to end apartheid in 1993.

Civil rights movement in Northern Ireland

The civil rights movement in Northern Ireland began in the 1960s. Initially, it focused on fighting discriminatory gerrymandering that disadvantaged Catholics and favored Protestants in elections. After the imprisonment of Catholic activists, the movement was characterized by a campaign of civil disobedience and some more violent strategies led by the IRA (Irish Republican Army).

The violent conflict that followed is commonly known as the Troubles (“the Problems”), a time when Protestants and Catholics engaged in frequent fighting, bombings, attacks with firearms, roadblocks and internment. The conflict left more than 3,000 dead and more than 30,000 injured before ending with a peace agreement in 1998.

What is the current situation?

The vast majority of countries actively deny civil rights to some minority groups.

 Despite the obstacles of recent decades, there is generally positive global momentum towards the recognition of more civil rights. The civil rights movements whose objective is the equality of women, children and the LGTBQ2+ communities are the ones that have advanced the most and continue to pressure governments around the world to recognize their rights.

Although groups fighting for civil rights and freedom have made significant gains, there is a global trend of anti-democratic backsliding and attacks on the rule of law. Over the last two decades, the liberal democratic order has been eroding while authoritarianism is gaining ground around the world.

Europe/Central Asia

In Europe and Central Asia there has been a rise in authoritarianism. A number of states have curbed judicial independence, stifled freedom and silenced critics. In addition, a major problem throughout the region is the treatment of migrants and the increase in illegal expulsions of asylum seekers. This problem has been highlighted in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, as many countries have taken in refugees from Ukraine while rejecting those arriving from majority Muslim and African countries.

Racism against historically marginalized groups has increased, and in many countries there has been an increase in verbal and physical attacks. Also, in some countries there have been backlashes against Black Lives Matter protests. 

While some countries have made progress in terms of the rights of women and the LGTBQ2+ community, with the approval of new laws that offer greater protection, others continue to go backwards and establish new restrictions on the rights of LGTBQ2+ people in particular. The COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have exacerbated existing problems, especially those related to freedom of the press, expression and peaceful assembly.

North America

In the United States, the Biden administration declared its intention to restore the country’s civil rights record, after many of them were attacked and eroded under the previous administration. The United States has a comparatively stronger civil rights record than many others, and the Biden administration has taken steps to repeal discriminatory policies toward LGBTQ2+ people and updated legislation to protect women and minorities. However, there is still much room for improvement and Supreme Court rulings have stymied previous civil rights victories. 

The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade threatens reproductive health care across the country and the ruling opens the door to attacking earlier rights, such as same-sex and interracial marriage and the right to contraception. In addition, the administration has failed to adopt and enforce police oversight and accountability measures following protests against police violence and excessive use of force.

New legislation has been passed in Canada to combat discrimination against a range of marginalized groups, including a bill to criminalize conversion therapy (a process that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or suppress their identity or expression of gender) and a law to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

However, the government has come under heavy criticism for its handling of issues relating to the country’s indigenous communities, especially following the discovery of the remains of more than 1,300 indigenous children buried in former boarding schools. Authorities failed to fully implement and share a public calendar of dozens of requests for intervention and accountability measures, and provincial governments continue to deny the existence of racism and discrimination against indigenous communities.

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