Each year on the third Monday of January, Americans celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This federal holiday marks the birthday (January 15) of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was a key leader in the American civil rights movement. For example, he urged people to protest in nonviolent ways against racial discrimination.

But what exactly are civil rights? Civil rights are personal rights that are protected and guaranteed by law. Some civil rights are listed in the United States Constitution, while others are identified in various federal laws.

Some examples of civil rights include:

  • freedom of speech
  • voting
  • freedom of religion
  • protection against illegal discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, sex and religion
  • freedom of the press

The phrase “civil rights" comes from the Latin words ius civis, which means “rights of citizens." Civil rights are considered universal human rights that all people should enjoy, regardless of whether these rights are expressly set forth in written laws.

Most democracies have written laws, such as the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which protect civil rights. However, most people believe civil rights are natural rights. In other words, civil rights come from the laws of nature — not as gifts from governments.

Civil rights haven't always been granted equally to all people throughout history. For example, the right to vote in the U.S. once only extended to men. In addition, it was once legal to discriminate against persons just because they were African Americans.

Throughout history, brave people have often stepped forward to challenge such injustices. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one such person. His hard work on behalf of African Americans was an important part of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Dr. King made many important speeches in which he urged people to protest in nonviolent ways. He also encouraged local, state and federal governments to enact laws to eliminate discrimination. Although he was assassinated before he saw major changes, his efforts were instrumental in the civil rights laws that were eventually passed.

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