Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Race, Gender, and Disability

Standard 5.4: Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Race, Gender, and Disability

Explain the historical context and significance of laws passed by Congress that have expanded the civil rights and equal protection for race, gender and disability. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.4]

Birmingham Civil Rights Museum

Reconstruction of Two Segregated Classrooms in 1953/Birmingham Civil Rights Museum
Image on Wikimedia Commons by Alacoolwiki, Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

FOCUS QUESTION: How Have Laws Passed by Congress Expanded Civil Rights and Equal Protections for Race, Gender, and Disability?

Throughout United States history, women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities have struggled to gain civil rights and receive equal protection under the law. Actions by Congress to address discrimination and injustice have only occasionally resulted in sweeping legislative action, examples of which are explored in this standard in the areas of civil rights, voting rights, gender rights, and disability rights.

    1. Race -- INVESTIGATE: The 1964 Civil Rights Law and Voting Rights Act of 1965

    President Lyndon Signs Voting Rights Act
    President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 while Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and others look on,
    Public Domain

    The 1964 Civil Rights Law and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are two of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in United States History.  Both have their origins in the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments following the Civil War. 

    The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first federal law to declare equal rights under the law for all people living within the jurisdiction of the United States. In 1870, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was created to enforce protect Black voting rights from intimidation and violence by southern groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. As Attorney-General, Amos T. Akerman, a former officer in the Confederate Army, was in charge of the new department and he aggressively pursued prosecutions against the Klan and others, obtaining hundreds of convictions in South Carolina and throughout the South (Smithsonian Magazine, July 2020). The Ku Klan Klan Act was passed in 1871 to give the federal government more power to combat violence against Blacks, but Akerman was removed from office in December of that year, a crucial development in the collapse of federal efforts to maintain Reconstruction rights for Blacks. Reconstruction itself ended with the election of 1876.

    Since then, there have been periodic efforts by Congress to ensure civil rights for Americans as shown in the following timeline: Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress, 1865-2006.

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964

    The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, required equal access to public places and employment, and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.

    Learn more about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

    In 2020, in the Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia case, the Supreme Court held that the Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The Title VII law prohibits employers from discriminating based on "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin."

    The case involved two gay men and one transgender woman who were fired by their employers based on their sexual and gender expression. Writing for the 6 to 3 majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch said, "when an employer fires an employee for being homosexual or transgender, it necessarily discriminates against the individual in part because of sex" (Syllabus, p. 3).

    The decision was considered a landmark ruling for LGBTQ rights in part because it applies to every employer in the country with 15 or more employees. In 2017, 77% of the nation's workplaces had 15 or more employees (The Historic Bostock Opinion and LBGTQ Rights in School, Phi Delta Kappan, September 21, 2020).

    School Intergration
    School Integration, Barnard School, Washington, D.C., 1955, Public Domain

    The Voting Rights Act of 1965

    The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was designed to “ensure state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race." As explained by Amy Howe (2013), the law required "all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting procedures, no matter how small."

    You can read an longer overview of the Voting Rights Act from the Brennan Center for Justice.

    screeshot of snapchat
    Screenshot of Snapchat. Retrieved August 6, 2020

    But in a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court rejected the VRA's "coverage formula" (Section 4) for determining when a state or locality was failing to comply with the law. In 2013, the year of the Court's decision, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia as well as districts in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota were in violation of the Voting Rights Act (Why Is Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act Such a Big Part of the Fight Over Voting Rights, VOX, February 14, 2016).

    The result is that the Voting Rights Act remains substantially weakened until Congress sets a new standard for determining discrimination, legislation that the Republican-controlled Senate has been unwilling to consider. The most recent Congressional effort to update the 1965 law is the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, summarized here by a press release from the office of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. The VRA was passed by the House of Representatives in December, 2019.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Online Resources for the Voting Rights Act

    2. Gender -- INVESTIGATE: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972

    In 2019, 12-year-old Maddy Freking became only the 19th girl to play baseball with boys in the 72 year history of the Little League World Series (LLWS); the first girl played in 1984 (learn more: A brief history of the 19 girls who have played in the Little League World Series). Maddy’s opportunity to play has its roots in Title IX, a landmark civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on gender at educational institutions that receive federal funding.The 22th girl played in the LLWS in 2023.

    Title IX declared: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" (as cited in Harvard Title IX, 2020, para. 2) 

    Watch What is Title IX, a video from CNN, to learn more about this landmark law.

    Title IX has transformed athletics and sports for girls and women. Before Title IX, only one in 27 girls participated in high school sports; by 2019, the number was two in five.

    Lacrosse Players
    College Women's Lacrosse Players, 2017 from Flickr, licensed by CC.BY.2.0

    But sports was not the only area of gender relationships impacted by this law. Before Title IX, only 7% of law degrees and 9% of medical degrees were earned by women. Currently women earn 47% of law degrees and 48% of medical degrees.

    By prohibiting sexual discrimination, Title IX made verbal or written harassment, sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence crimes, greatly enhancing safety for women.

    You can follow the latest in women's sports from the On Her Turf blog from NBC Sports.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Evaluate Representation of Women in Art
      • Using art resources from Can Girls Do That? Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, make a portrait to prove that stereotypes are often not accurate. 
    • Research Legislation for Gender Equity
      • Identify 3-5 pieces of legislation that have advanced gender equity.
      • Create a mosaic with symbols, images, and colors to explain how these pieces of legislation advanced the gender rights of all Americans.

    Online Resources for Title IX and Combating Gender Stereotypes

    Media Literacy Connections: The Equality Act on Twitter

    At the end of February, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Equality Act, a bill designed to amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act by banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The 1964 legislation banned discrimination based on “sex.”

    The Equality Act expands that protection against discrimination to explicitly include lesbian, gay, and transgender Americans. The Act was one of the policies that President Joe Biden wanted to have passed during his first 100 Days in office.

    Support and opposition for the bill is sharply divided along partisan lines - Democrats support and Republicans oppose. Both sides cite the importance of individual freedoms to support their views.

    Court decisions are divided as to what is discriminatory conduct. In Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court ruled that an employer cannot fire an employee for participating in a gay recreational softball league. But, the Court also ruled in Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission that a baker can refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

    In this activity, you will investigate how members of Congress took to Twitter to discuss, promote, or oppose the Equality Act and then consider how you might have done it differently:

    2.1. ENGAGE: How Would You Expand Athletic Opportunities for All Genders at Your School?

    The increasing participating of girls and transgender athletes in school sports following the passage of Title IX has raised complex and highly contested questions of sex, gender, identity, and fairness. The activities in this section explore those questions.

    History of Women's Sports

    While girls in this country have always played sports and games for fun, formal athletic participation and competition for women did not begin until the 1880s with the forming of separate clubs where females could play tennis, croquet, bowling and archery—although often under different rules than for men. 

    Babe Dirikson Zaharias
    Babe Didrikson Zaharias, 1948, Public Domain

    The nation’s most prominent mid-20th century woman athlete was Babe Didrikson Zaharias. A multi-sport star in track and field events (shot put, hurdles, and high jump), baseball, and golf, she set numerous records in different sports and could outperform males in each (About "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias).

    Didrikson qualified for all five individual women's track and field events in the 1932 Olympics, but was allowed to compete in only three of them. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) was established in 1950; Babe Zaharias as one of the original 13 founders. For more on her life and times, visit the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Woman Athlete and Equality Pioneer.

    Today, more than two in every five girls participate in high school sports, spurred on in part by the achievements of Serena and Venus Williams, Simone Biles, Mikaela Shiffrin, Alex Morgan, Lindsey Vonn, Michelle Wie, Danica Patrick and many others. Still participation in high school sports by boys (4,565,580) exceeds girls (3,415,306) by more than a million participants (National Federation of State High School Associations, 2018).

    Mixed Gender Sports

    Should girls and boys be allowed to compete against one another in the same athletic activities?

    Adult women and men compete against one another in many sports today including Equestrian events, horse racing, ultimate frisbee, car racing, sailing, surfing, and mixed team events in tennis, golf, and badminton. The Tokyo Olympics, held in 2021, featured 7 new mixed-gender events including relays in track and swimming and mixed pistol and rifle competitions, as well as mixed judo and table tennis. In the triathlon, each individual member of a four-person team (two women and two men) swim 300 meters, bike 6.8 kilometers, and run 2 kilometers. In table tennis, like mixed doubles tennis, two-person female and male teams compete together against a team of mixed-gender opponents.

    The Women's Sports Foundation (2019) contends that co-educational mixed gender sport competition should be encouraged in middle and high schools where rules "maximize fair competition between the sexes" (p. 2). The Foundation also believes schools must allow girls to try out for boys' teams in contact or non-contact sports, which is the law in some but not all states. There are educational and parent organizations that strongly disagree with this position.

    In June 2021, the U.S. Department of Education reversed a position taken by the previous Trump Administration (which had rescinded policies from the Obama Administration) and declared that Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

    The Department followed the reasoning established by the 2020 Bostock V. Clayton County employment discrimination case that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is a form of sex discrimination and therefore prohibited. President Biden's executive order said "children should be able to learn without worrying whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports" (Executive Order 13988: Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity or Sexual Orientation, January 20, 2021).

    In Massachusetts public schools, “a girl may play on a boys’ team if that sport is not offered in the school for the girl, and a boy may play on a girls’ team if that sport is not offered in the school for the boy.”

    What are the sport participation and student protection policies at your school and in your state?

    Gender Identity and Transgender/Nonbinary Athletes

    Should students be banned from participating in athletics based on their gender identity?

    In May 2020, the federal Education Department's Office of Civil Rights found that a state of Connecticut policy allowing transgender students to compete on female track teams "denied female student athletes athletic benefits and opportunities" and threatened to withhold funding to the state's Interscholastic Athletic Conference (Levenson & Vigdor, 2020, p. 29). Transgender rights groups strongly opposed the ruling, arguing that students who identify as female are female and must be allowed to participate under Title IX guarantees. The case has national implications.

    Throughout 2020 and 2021, multiple Republican-led states including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Idaho passed laws banning transgender girls from participating in women's sports. Idaho also legalized sex testing of athletes before competing. In August 2022, a federal judge reversed Utah's ban as transgender rights groups pursued legal challenges to the law. Instead, a state commission composed of medical, psychology, and athletic representatives was established to review each participation request by students to determine if the individual's physical attributes would provide an unfair competitive advantage in a sport. Transgender groups believe both the original law and the state commission violate the state's constitution guarantee of equal rights and due process.

    For more information, see Transgender Students Rights in School.

    You can follow the latest in women's sports from the On Her Turf blog from NBC Sports.

    Special Topic Box: Transgender Athletes in School Sports

      Title IX is also at the center of current debates over the rights of transgender individuals, including students in schools. Transgender describes people whose gender identity or gender expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth (Transgender FAQ, GLAAD).

      Sports participation for transgender youth in school sports has become one of the most polarizing Title IX issues. In 2020 alone, 20 states passed laws banning transgender athletes from participating in school sports even though the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), International Olympic Committee (IOC), and numerous professional and amateur leagues (including USA Gymnastics, U.S. Soccer, and the National Women's Hockey League) have allowed transgender athletes to participate "in accordance with their gender identify as early as 2004" (Fair Play, Center for American Progress, February 8, 2021, para. 2).

      In December 2022, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision that dismissed a challenge to a Connecticut law that allows transgender girls to participate in high school sports. In the case, four cisgender runners claimed they were unfairly disadvantaged (that is, denied opportunities to win matches, titles, and scholarships) when competing against transgender athletes. The Court disagreed, noting that the cisgender runners had won events and titles when transgender athletes were in the race, and therefore had not been deprived "of a chance to be champions" (Federal Appeals Court Upholds Connecticut Transgender Athlete Policy, December 16, 2020).

      In Massachusetts public schools, "athletic opportunities must be afforded to students in accordance with their identified gender, not necessarily their birth assigned gender."

      At the college level, current NCAA rules "allow transgender athletes, including women, to compete, so long as they adhere to the guidelines stipulated by their international sport governing bodies" (The Washington Post, April 23, 2024).

      What Athletic and Sports Opportunities Do Students Want in Their Schools?

      Adopting the principle that students should have a meaningful voice in education reform, one school district in New Mexico asked kids for their recommendations for change and improvement (Baca & Valladares, National Education Policy Center, January 2022).

      Among the students' recommendations was "expand formal and informal sports activities," (p. 9) including pickup basketball, volleyball, soccer, roller skating, and hiking. The students emphasized the importance of activities that were non-competitive and built friends and community. In addition, they urged administrators and teachers to "increase the number of and access to activities that connect to students' interests and identities" (p. 10). They further suggested students be released from class to go hiking with local scientists just like student athletes playing competitive sports get released to attend games.

      How would you improve athletic activities and sports opportunities for everyone at your school? 

      Suggested Learning Activities

      • Propose Changes at Your School
        • How would you provide girls with more opportunities to play sports in school?  

      Online Resources for Mixed Gender Sports and Games

      3. Disability -- INVESTIGATE: The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

      The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a “civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public" (What is the Americans with Disabilities Act?, 2020, para. 1). The first disability law enacted in the United States was Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. It prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance, and set the stage for enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

      Pelangi Tower Wheel Chair Ramp
      Pelangi Tower - Wheelchair Ramp from Chongian licenced under CC.BY-SA.4.0

      Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in July 1990, the ADA is a milestone achievement in the civil rights struggle by individuals with disabilities and exceptionalities. ADA changed the everyday lives of millions of Americans. Students with disabilities could not be denied equal schooling. Individuals with disabilities no longer had to abandon their wheelchairs to ride a train or bus; a restaurant or grocery store could no longer refuse to serve a disabled person; no one could not be blocked from employment because of their disability or paid less money for the same work; homosexuals could not longer be labeled disabled (Lombard, 2015).

      Still, despite the ADA law, there is much progress that must be made for disability rights and justice. Only 19% of adults with disabilities held jobs in 2019, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic created widespread unemployment throughout the country. Additionally, people with disabilities are more likely to be incarcerated or be victims of police violence and are less likely to vote due to physical and logistical barriers (Leonhardt, 2020).

      Here is the entire text of the law, as amended. Other important legislation include the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act in 2008. There are more resources at the Disability Rights and Justice Movement and the Disability History Museum.

      LInk here for the history of the Disability Rights Movement from the National Park Service and a Brief History of the Disability Rights Movement from the Anti-Defamation League.

      Suggested Learning Activity

      • Document, Research, and Propose Action
        • Review the Global Disability Rights Now document: Improving Accessibility of Schools.
        • Photograph or sketch a map showcasing all the ways the physical and instructional learning environments of your school have been changed to accommodate the needs of disabled students and adults.
      • Discuss and State Your View:  What still needs to be changed at your school to ensure full and equal participation for all?
        • Write a proposal or create a presentation to propose changes to your school administrators about increasing the accessibility of your school building and learning environment.
      • Research Legislation for Rights of People with Disabilities
        • Identify 3-5 pieces of legislation that addressed the rights people with disabilities.
        • Create a mosaic with symbols, images and colors to explain how these pieces of legislation advanced disability rights in the United States.

          Online Resources for the Americans with Disability Act and Disability History

          3.1. UNCOVER: Helen Keller, Author and Political Activist

          Deaf, blind, and unable to speak after an illness as an infant, Helen Keller devoted her life to supporting progressive causes, fighting for women’s rights, and opposing discrimination against people with disabilities.

          Helen Keller

          Helen Keller 1880-1963 from United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division, Public Domain
          Helen Keller in Braille from Trockennasenaffe, Public Domain

          Helen Keller advocated for women’s suffrage, birth control, and pacifism. She became a socialist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). To learn more about her political views, read How I Became a Socialist (1912).

          A statue of her, based on a scene from the movie A Miracle Worker, was added to the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. in 2009. For more information, explore the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki page Helen Keller, Author and Political Activist and the Helen Keller Archive from the American Association for the Blind.

          Suggested Learning Activities 

          • Read and Report Out
            • Explore the Helen Keller Political Activities section of her Wikipedia page
            • List four causes for social justice Helen Keller supported during her lifetime.
            • Have you been taught about Keller's life-long political activism in school?
            • If not, write a proposal to a teacher or school administrator advocating for the inclusion of Keller's political activism in school curriculum.
          • Analyze Primary Sources
            • Explore Helen Keller’s FBI Files
            • Why do you think Helen Keller was investigated by the FBI for her political views?  
            • Why were opposition to war, support for socialism, and commitment to revolutionary change such controversial topics in American society, then and now?

          Standard 5.4 Conclusion

          The modules for this standard examined late 20th century laws passed by Congress that expanded civil rights for people of color, women, and individuals with disabilities. INVESTIGATE reviewed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1970; and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1970. UNCOVER explored the career and political activism of Helen Keller. ENGAGE asked when can girls and boys compete together in athletic events.

          This content is provided to you freely by Equity Press.

          Access it online or download it at https://equitypress.org/democracy/civilrights.