General capitalization rules of the English language state that proper nouns are always capitalized. Examples of proper nouns include names of people, organizations and major events. For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the formal name of the government agency and is hence capitalized. The same goes for historical events, such as the French Revolution or World War II. The names of movements are a bit trickier, however. For instance, Romantic, when referring to the 19th-century literary style is only capitalized when there is a possibility it could be confused with the adjective romantic, which means a person characterized by an idealistic view of reality.
So, Is the “Civil Rights Movement” Capitalized?
According to this rule, there would be no case where the phrase “civil rights movement” would be capitalized, as it has no synonym and refers to no single organization, but an array of movements brought together by a loose common cause.
What About Capitalizing “Civil Rights”?
Similarly, “civil rights” is an umbrella term for an expanding set of rights designed to protect individuals from governmental oppression. There’s no unified program that can be called civil rights, and the term has historically meant different things to different groups of people, so it is thus lowercase in a sentence.
Though different capitalization styles can be found even in academic publications, when in doubt, one should always consult a style guide they’ve chosen to write in. When it comes to “civil rights movement” and “civil rights”, three of the most widely used style guides, the MLA, the Associated Press Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style are all in agreement: these phrases are not to be capitalized. The Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style state no reason for this recommendation, whereas the MLA style guide states that the general trend in modern editorial style leans toward reducing capitalization to a minimum.
When Are “Civil Rights” and “Civil Rights Movement” Capitalized?
These phrases are capitalized when used in a title. According to standard title capitalization rules, only prepositions and conjunctions are usually lowercase.
To learn more about proper title capitalization rules, give our free title capitalization tool a try.