October 2023

Before the Movement

Review by
Dylan C. Penningroth’s history of Black Americans’ experiences with U.S. law is sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written.
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In his sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights (Liveright, $35, 9781324093107), Dylan C. Penningroth, a professor of law and history at the University of California, Berkeley, gives us a new way to look at Black lives throughout American history. Penningroth explores Black people’s everyday experiences with the law in depth. “The basic premise of this book is that Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves,” he writes.  

Tracing the Black freedom struggle from the last years of slavery through the Reconstruction and Jim Crow periods and “the subsequent forty years when battles over the scope and meaning of civil rights broke out again on the national stage,” Penningroth contends that “we cannot understand Black legal lives after slavery without first examining Black legal lives during slavery.” Based on Penningroth’s extraordinary research conducted from records in the basements of county courthouses, we learn how Black people, following the end of the Civil War, dealt with owning property, marriage and divorce, conducting business and church matters and much more. He refutes the idea that Black people knew little about the law. “White people recognized Black rights,” he writes, “because life’s ordinary business could not go on if whites could not make contracts and convey property to Black people.”    

We read about the rise of Black property owners from Reconstruction to the depths of Jim Crow. Penningroth notes that “Five years after the Civil War ended, 4.8 percent of the South’s Black families, about 43,000, owned real estate. Over the next fifteen years, that figure steadily rose.” This happened despite virtually no help from the government and the passing of so-called Black Codes that severely restricted the rights of Black people in some Southern states..

The meaning of “civil rights” has changed through the years. In 1866, it meant contract and property rights and the ability to take a case to court. By 1954, the term had come to refer to racial discrimination at work and school and the right to vote. More recently, Penningroth writes, “the grassroots wanted much more than some federal laws protecting their right to vote, to patronize restaurants, and to attend integrated schools. They wanted to remake American democracy from the ground up.”

An important book full of insight into issues and personalities, Before the Movement should be of interest to anyone who wants to better understand American history.    

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