Civil rights are the basic rights the government guarantees to every citizen, regardless of race, gender, religion, age, disability, or ethnicity. In the U.S., all citizens have the same rights regardless of who they are, such as equal access to equal legal justice, to due process, and to the vote, as well as to jobs, housing, and "social equality:" the right to eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, drink at the same water fountains, and participate equally in public spaces.
Equality is a fundamental aspect of civil rights. However, for a long period in our country, "equality" was defined differently than it is today. In an 1896 Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, the court upheld the idea of "separate but equal," which decreed that segregation on the basis of race was legal as long the two races had access to "equal" facilities.
In practice, segregation did not lead to equality. It denied one group rights to the privileges the other group held. Since the 1950s and 1960s, equality in civil rights has been redefined to mean equal opportunity and access to all that society has to offer.
We have seen much improvement in opportunities for black people, women, Asians, the disabled, and other minority groups in this country since the 1960s. Women have access to the top colleges, once the privileged domains of men. Black people can't legally be refused purchase of a home or denied a job on the basis of race. We have seen a black man elected president of the United States and a woman elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. Promoting diversity has become important in schools and the workplace.
However, we do still need civil rights. As recent years have shown, old stereotypes of certain races or groups as inferior and not "real" Americans die hard, and members of these groups can find their civil rights under assault. Without protection, for example, black people can be disproportionally denied the right to vote due to discriminatory voting laws and darker skinned people can be harassed as illegal immigrants even if they are here legally. It would be ideal if we could live in a world with no need of civil rights legislation, but that world is a long way off.