A prize-winning scholar draws on astonishing new research to demonstrate how Black people used the law to their advantage long before the Civil Rights Movement.
The familiar story of civil rights goes something like this: Once, the American legal system was dominated by racist officials who shut Black people out and refused to recognize their basic human dignity. Then, starting in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers ventured south, bent on changing the law?and soon, everyday African Americans joined with them to launch the Civil Rights Movement. In Before the Movement, historian Dylan C. Penningroth overturns this story, demonstrating that Black people had long exercised “the rights of everyday use,” and that this lesser-known private-law tradition paved the way for the modern vision of civil rights. Well-versed in the law, Black people had used it to their advantage for nearly a century to shape how they worked, worshiped, learned, and loved. Based on long-forgotten sources found in the basements of county courthouses, Before the Movement recovers a vision of Black life allied with, yet distinct from, “the freedom struggle.”