The Civil Rights Division Is Enforcing Civil Rights Again — But the Work Isn’t Over

In May 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and delivered his “Give Us the Ballot” address — positioning voting rights at the center of the larger struggle for civil rights.

In the months that followed, Congress responded. Sixty-five years ago this month, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and The Leadership Conference coalition’s first major legislative achievement. This crucial law established a Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and authorized three important features: a position for an assistant attorney general for civil rights at DOJ, the creation of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the use of civil suits against voting discrimination.

Since its creation 65 years ago, the Civil Rights Division and the person who leads it have been instrumental in protecting civil rights and promoting equal justice for all. Indeed, a strong Civil Rights Division can make a real difference in the lives of people across the country. But robust enforcement of civil rights laws isn’t always a priority of every administration. President Obama revitalized the division after it became deeply politicized during George W. Bush’s presidency. In his first State of the Union address in 2010, Obama remarked that “My administration has a Civil Rights Division that is once again prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination. We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.”

But the clock was turned back again during the Trump administration, when DOJ leadership — including leadership of the division — pulled back on federal civil rights enforcement and unraveled portions of DOJ’s progress during Obama’s presidency.

Today, under the leadership of civil rights lawyer Kristen Clarke, the division during the Biden administration is back in the business of enforcing civil rights. Since last year, DOJ has filed several voting rights lawsuits, including against Georgia’s Senate Bill 202, Texas’s Senate Bill 1, Texas’s statewide redistricting plans, Galveston County, Texas’s county redistricting plan, and Arizona’s House Bill 2492. The department also reached an agreement with the city of West Monroe, Louisiana, under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) after challenging its method of electing aldermen.

These lawsuits to protect voting rights are critically important, especially in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 and Brnovich v. DNC in 2021 — Supreme Court rulings that severely undermined the power of the VRA. They are also important because the freedom to vote is fundamental and protects all of our other freedoms, including our freedom to access abortion and to live authentically without fear of harassment and discrimination. Both are under attack by state lawmakers across the country.

DOJ has taken action to protect those freedoms as well. Last year, after Texas effectively banned abortion, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a lawsuit challenging Texas’s Senate Bill 8. And last month, the department sued Idaho to protect reproductive rights in the state, alleging that Idaho law violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the department formally established a reproductive rights task force, chaired by Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta (our former president and CEO), to identify actions the federal government can take to protect abortion access.

The department is also acting to protect transgender youth. For example, in February 2021, the department withdrew the Trump DOJ’s brief in support of an Idaho law barring trans students from participating in school sports and also reversed the government’s support for a federal lawsuit in Connecticut seeking to ban trans students from girls’ high school sports. On the International Transgender Day of Visibility in March 2022, Assistant Attorney General Clarke wrote to all state attorneys general reminding them of federal constitutional and statutory provisions that protect trans youth against discrimination, including when they seek gender-affirming care. In April 2022, DOJ filed a lawsuit challenging Alabama Senate Bill 184, which made it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care to trans youth. And importantly, at the beginning of the Biden administration, the Civil Rights Division issued a memo saying that the division has “determined that the best reading of Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ is that it includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.”

The Civil Rights Division has also opened critical pattern or practice investigations into the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Police Department and into the Louisville/Jefferson County metro government and the Louisville Metro Police Department in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It has opened an investigation into the conditions of confinement in Georgia’s prisons. It has dropped a federal lawsuit that accused Yale University of illegally discriminating against Asian American and white applicants in the admissions process. It has launched a comprehensive civil rights investigation focusing on whether there’s a pattern or practice of physical or sexual abuse of children in Texas’s youth prisons. And every day, the career staff of the division continues this important work.

Of course, the work is far from over. Earlier this year, The Leadership Conference released an assessment of how far the administration and the 117th Congress have come — and how far they still have to go — in fulfilling our coalition’s civil and human rights priorities. This report highlights actions that DOJ and other federal agencies, the president, and Congress can take to advance civil rights. Additionally, a U.N. committee that reviews the United States’ record of eliminating racial discrimination met last month in Geneva. Their report, issued on August 30, urged the United States to do better and outlined specific steps the government can take to achieve racial equity. Many of their findings align with what we wrote in a shadow report submitted ahead of their review.

And the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — the other agency created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — continues its efforts to study deprivations of civil rights across the country and offer recommendations for improvement. Over the past year, for example, the commission has issued comprehensive reports on the civil rights implications of cash bail and racial disparities in maternal health.

Today, 65 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1957, The Leadership Conference coalition remains hard at work. And just as our coalition came together to achieve passage of this landmark legislation decades ago, we will continue pushing the division, the rest of the Biden administration, and Congress to advance civil and human rights, save our democracy, and build the America we all deserve.