New Book Explores the Shifting Meaning of the Term “Civil Rights”



By Tad Vezner
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“This book revolves around a deceptively simple question: what do we mean when we say that something is an issue of civil rights?”

That’s how Christopher Schmidt, professor and associate dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law, begins his recently published book, Civil Rights in America: A History.

The ubiquitous term “civil rights” has a long history dating all the way back to the Civil War Reconstruction era. And in the decades since the civil rights movement it has been claimed by countless social and political movements.

“We identify certain people as civil rights icons. We declare public officials good or bad on civil rights. All of this assumes ‘civil rights’ includes certain things and not others,” Schmidt writes. “But look up the term in a dictionary or legal reference work and you’ll find a mix of abstractions and stilted legalisms, none of which captures the depth and complexity of meaning that is conveyed with its invocation and none of which hints at historic and ongoing struggles over its contents.”

From the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to Black Lives Matter to the National Rifle Association—and even former President Richard M. Nixon—many organizations and individuals have claimed to champion civil rights. In his book, Schmidt explores the term’s various meanings, evolutions, and iterations that have served as the basis of these claims.

“To understand the meaning of civil rights…history is our best resource,” Schmidt argues.

And so Schmidt delves into the history of the term. Thoroughly. Or as he puts it, “I excavate the term as it was used and debated, redefined, and redeployed.”

The book, published in December by Cambridge University Press, is different from the numerous books written on the history of civil rights. Rather than assuming a fixed definition, it delves into how the term itself has changed, and why.

Schmidt also explores how many of those who ostensibly benefited from strengthened civil rights under some of their more traditional definitions, such as Black Americans, have shied away from adopting the term, and even attacked its usage.

And he points out how recently scholars and activists have sought to change the term again, into “an aspirational term of radical social transformation.” He cautions how something valuable may be lost in this ahistorical effort.

“It was a tool of pragmatic reform and compromise....Terms of aspiration we have in abundance,” Schmidt writes.

“Civil rights, historically, has been something different: a term that could translate aspiration into legal change,” he writes, later calling it “a term that insists upon our commonalities even as it has always served to exclude; a term filled with meaning, yet impossible to define; a term that demands attention to history, to civil rights struggles past, yet is constantly remade to apply to new struggles.”

The term, Schmidt writes, is often reached for by those wanting to transcend politics, but  “has become so comfortably a part of the language of American politics and law that it risks sliding into that category of sonorous labels such as freedom or justice or equality that promise everything to everyone and therefore demand little of anyone.

“There is no end to a debate about the meaning of freedom or equality. Yet civil rights has resisted, for the most part, such semantic vacuity.”

It is Schmidt’s hope, in exploring the term’s history, to keep it that way.

“Chris is an expert in this field, and when reading his book one can see why,” says Chicago-Kent dean Anita K. Krug. “His exploration of the term ‘civil rights’ traverses its varied meanings and historical underpinnings, and the insights that emerge are as timely now as ever.”  

“Chris Schmidt’s book is vital to our understanding of the historical and current meanings of civil rights,” says Ajay K. Mehrotra, executive director of the American Bar Foundation (ABF). “In his deeply empirical reexamination of this seemingly familiar phrase, Chris helps us make sense of the term as we work to expand knowledge and advance justice.”

In addition to being a professor and associate dean at Chicago-Kent, Schmidt is co-director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States, a research professor at the ABF, and the editor of the ABF’s quarterly publication Law & Social Inquiry.

Schmidt received his Ph.D. in American studies from Harvard University and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. He also authored The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era (University of Chicago Press 2018).

Photo: Professor of Law Christopher Schmidt and the cover his book: Civil Rights in America: A History