“[A] deeply researched and counterintuitive history . . . Penningroth reframes the conventional story of civil rights.” —Matthew F. Delmont, Washington Post
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 like this: once, America’s legal system shut Black people out and refused to recognize their rights, their basic human dignity, or even their very lives. When lynch mobs gathered, police and judges often closed their eyes, if they didn’t join in. For Black people, law was a hostile, fearsome power to be avoided whenever possible. Then, starting in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers ventured south, bent on changing the law. Soon, ordinary African Americans, awakened by Supreme Court victories and galvanized by racial justice activists, launched the civil rights movement.
In Before the Movement, acclaimed historian Dylan C. Penningroth brilliantly revises the conventional story. Drawing on long-forgotten sources found in the basements of county courthouses across the nation, Penningroth reveals that African Americans, far from being ignorant about law until the middle of the twentieth century, have thought about, talked about, and used it going as far back as even the era of slavery. They dealt constantly with the laws of property, contract, inheritance, marriage and divorce, of associations (like churches and businesses and activist groups), and more. By exercising these “rights of everyday use,” Penningroth demonstrates, they made Black rights seem unremarkable. And in innumerable subtle ways, they helped shape the law itself—the laws all of us live under today.
Penningroth’s narrative, which stretches from the last decades of slavery to the 1970s, partly traces the history of his own family. Challenging accepted understandings of Black history framed by relations with white people, he puts Black people at the center of the story—their loves and anger and loneliness, their efforts to stay afloat, their mistakes and embarrassments, their fights, their ideas, their hopes and disappointments, in all their messy humanness. Before the Movement is an account of Black legal lives that looks beyond the Constitution and the criminal justice system to recover a rich, broader vision of Black life—a vision allied with, yet distinct from, “the freedom struggle.”
About the Author
Dylan C. Penningroth is a professor of law and history at the University of California, Berkeley. A MacArthur Prize fellow and author of The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South, he lives in Kensington, California.
[A] deeply researched and counterintuitive history of how ordinary Black Americans used law in their everyday lives from the last decades of slavery to the 1970s. Penningroth reframes the conventional story of civil rights . . . [he] makes expert use of underutilized sources, including deed books, civil and criminal cases, and corporate registries stored in the basements and backrooms of county courthouses. Before the Movement is at its best when it gives readers a glimpse of Penningroth’s historical detective work, searching clothbound docket books and neat rows of gray file boxes . . . Penningroth’s tenacious focus on the ordinary is a rejoinder to ongoing efforts to limit African American history. As he concludes, ‘The basic premise of this book is that Black people’s lives are worth studying in themselves.' — Matthew F. Delmont - Washington Post
[A] cogently subversive book. . . . Mr. Penningroth’s powerful thesis may seem strikingly counterintuitive, but his detailed exposition is convincing, drawing on the prior work of dozens of scholars who have explored smaller aspects of the vast canvas Mr. Penningroth seeks to paint. — David J. Garrow - Wall Street Journal
A brilliant reframing of African American history that centers the everyday lives of Black people. This book is on my short list for a Pulitzer. — Alexis Madrigal - KQED Forum
Overall, the lasting impact of Before the Movement will be its centralization of often sidelined contours of Black life, such as how Black people loved and experienced pleasure, faith, and grief through the robust records of Black legal lives. Black lives matter not because of their relation to white oppression, but on their own terms. As Penningroth writes: 'In this history, Black people—not race relations—are the center of gravity.'
— Mimi Borders - Chicago Review of Books
Sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written . . . [Before the Movement] gives us a new way to look at Black lives throughout American history... extraordinary.
— Roger Bishop - BookPage
[This b]road-ranging study showing the many ways in which Black people, enslaved and free, used custom and law to assert their rights in the years before the Civil Rights Movement coalesced . . . In a fluent narrative, Penningroth shows how these rights were negotiated and developed in sometimes unlikely contexts, all foregrounding the advances of the 1950s and beyond. A closely argued addition to our understanding of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement. — Kirkus Reviews
Penningroth adroitly explains complex legal concepts in accessible prose, turning case histories into vibrant narratives. This revelatory account of Black self-determination opens up a neglected aspect of African American history. — Publishers Weekly
Whether buying a house, marching to the courthouse, or tithing at the Lord’s House, Black people grace these pages in what I’d consider the most masterful treatment yet written on the business of African American freedom. Dylan Penningroth challenges our tendency to limit Black struggles for justice to their pursuits of national belonging. The result is an incredible and transformative book that has given the history of civil rights its proper and fullest accounting. — N. D. B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida
With sweeping elegance, Before the Movement reveals how for Black Americans law has been neither a cudgel of white supremacy nor a torch of liberation. Dylan Penningroth instead takes readers inside the everyday life of law – much of it unfolding in local courthouses. Long denied the protection of the Constitution, Black Americans fashioned common-law civil rights. The heroes here are only sometimes credential lawyers or black-robed judges; Penningroth foremost celebrates how together ordinary Black folk wangled rights from rules about property and contract, earning them a faith in law that undergirded the modern Civil Rights movement. Penningroth is tireless researcher and gifted storyteller who elevates Black American’s everyday legal struggles to their rightful and enduring place in our national story.
— Martha S. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America
This deeply researched book completely rewrites the history of African Americans and their struggles law from the close of slavery through the 1960s. Even at the height of the Jim Crow era, Black Americans went to courthouses, used law in their everyday lives, formed churches and legal associations, and forced white Americans to contend with important legal rules that they helped create. Their story had been a “hidden history” until Penningroth’s painstaking efforts brought it to light, and their engagement with law has left us with multiple notions of what it means to fight for ‘civil rights. — Kenneth W. Mack
Dylan Penningroth’s new landmark book will forever alter the way we think about and write the legal history of the U.S. — an astonishing, decades’-long research effort. Not to be missed. — John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War in American History (Pulitzer Prize Finalist and winner of the Bancroft Prize)