Recently, the world celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, activist, minister, and one of the most visible leaders of the United States Civil Rights Movement, attempted to challenge the United States to realize its egalitarian potential by finally affording constitutional rights for its Black citizens. While the Civil Rights Movement was successful in legally banning explicit discriminatory practices, systemic inequity continues to define many Black Americans’ course of life through housing and education discrimination, public policies, laws and so forth.
Researchers note that Black children continue to face structural barriers and implicit racial biases that impact their quality of life. Research finds that Black children encounter disproportionate punitive measures in schools compared to their White counterparts; Black girls are viewed as “less innocent and less in need of protection” when compared to White girls of their age group; Black boys despite growing up wealthy are more likely to become impoverished as adults than to remain in a higher socioeconomic status; and that Black minors are more likely to be tried as adults than any other group. Consequently, several scholars and activists have sought to reframe the struggle for constitutionally derived rights or civil rights as a more accurate struggle for human rights.
Civil rights refer to rights afforded to individuals based on citizenship. In the United States, the constitution guarantees certain protections, freedoms, and privileges. Human rights differ in that they refer to a breadth of fundamental rights offered to all individuals regardless of their background, identity, country-of-origin, or citizenship status such as freedom of persecution and discrimination and the right to education and adequate living standards.
In examining the framework for civil rights in the U.S., Carol Anderson in an excerpt from Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights notes:
“How could all of the blood, all of the courage, and all of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement still leave in its wake a nation where schools are more segregated than ever, where more than half of all black children live in poverty, and where the life expectancy of African Americans has actually declined? The answer lies, I believe, not so much in the well-documented struggle for civil rights, but in the little known, but infinitely more important, struggle for human rights.”
Anderson goes on to suggest that the U.S.’s quest for civil rights tends to focus primarily on symbolic equality whereas the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights utilized more powerful, philosophical, and expansive language when articulating human rights. Anderson posits that a human rights framework better encapsulates the goals for Black Americans from a systemic lens and could address and repair the harm caused by slavery, Jim Crowe, and racism.
While there is certainly overlap between civil rights and human rights in definition, opting for a human rights perspective towards the quest for egalitarianism is a more viable solution that addresses systemic oppression and historical wrongs. This framework would shift goals towrds equity rather than a shallow goal of symbolic equality. Lawmakers, educators, activists, and scholars should broaden their scope of civil rights violations to also include human rights implications. Doing so would ensure that Dr. King’s legacy of activism and advocacy did not end with the Civil Rights Movement.
To learn more about the history of Black Americans and the quest for human rights, read Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights.