The way I interpret the conventional meaning of civil rights is that certain "rights" apply to certain groups; that membership in those groups alone conveys those special rights. Something else implicit in the conventional idea of civil rights is that they can be granted by government -- of course what the advocates don't say is that if they can be granted, then they can also be taken away. It's really an aspect of collectivism.
Individual rights, on the other hand, apply equally to everyone, regardless of which groups you belong to or don't belong to. An important property of true individual rights is that they can be exercised by everyone at the same time. They cannot be granted by anyone, nor can they be taken away; their source is our nature as humans.
Civil Rights should be the procedural enactment of Individual Rights on the Political level. Such things as equality before the law, protections against self-incrimination and property takings and other such rights exemplified in the Bill of Rights Amendments (and their post-Civil War additions) are examples of legal codifications of the means of protecting Individual Rights from improper government action.
Unfortunately, as Rick points out in his answer, Civil Rights have become Special Privileges that force action upon private individuals vis a vis their membership (or not) in particular protected classes instead of being a set of mandated actions by, or prohibited bounds on government.
It should be noted that protection of Individual Rights from violation by other people or non-governmental organizations should fall under Criminal and Civil Law and these should be codified in a hierarchy that properly notes their subordinate position to Civil Rights and Individual Rights respectively.
Individual rights are the moral entitlements to act in various ways, which entitlements exist solely by virtue of being an individual entity possessing the faculty of reason. They hold for all individuals, irrespective of who they are, in the context of a regular existence (ie outside lifeboat situations and the like - but that's another topic entirely). As such, they are limits on individuals' actions qua other individuals.
Civil rights are the moral entitlement to be treated certain ways by the government of a given jurisdiction, which entitlements are determined on the basis of membership or non-membership of the group of people who (jointly or severally) own the property defining that jurisdiction and who empower that government to act on their behalf. They are an important part of the limits on government's actions qua all individuals.
Proper civil rights are an application of individual rights to the context of each particular society and how they politically organise themselves. This arises because proper governments are governments of by and for individuals, and it is individual rights that limit the action of those individuals. Governments get their authority from individuals, so may NOT overstep the bounds of individual rights. A large part of our troubles today come from counterfeit rights that do oversetp the bounds of individual rights and objective morality.
Discovery of these principles is the task of philosophy of law, and putting them in black-letter law is the task of politicians. Some of the content of civil rights is morally mandatory for all societies (eg the right to demand that elected representatives investigate grievances regarding government action and secure proper redress), and some is optional and so may be different for different societies as suits their culture (eg under what conditions the entitlement to vote for representatives is obtained, including whether particular offices are even elected or not). Note that this mandatory/optional contrast applies directly to valid vs invalid cultures themselves, so this distinction is not arbitrary and does not permit any given people to define anything their collective whims desire as part of that which is objectively optional. At every step of the way, objective morality is the proper guide in determining civil rights.
answered Oct 08 '11 at 19:48