cover image Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights

Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights

Dylan C. Penningroth. Liveright, $35 (494p) ISBN 978-1-324-09310-7

In this meticulous study, Penningroth (The Claims of Kinfolk), a professor of history and law at UC Berkeley, draws on hundreds of archived county court records and other sources to uncover how African Americans have made use of the law in everyday affairs from the days of slavery to the present, demonstrating that Black communities’ robust engagement with the law set the stage for the civil rights gains of the mid-20th century. In the slavery era, for example, Penningroth documents the “privileges” that slaves had (as contrasted to “rights,” which they did not have), such as owning small garden plots, chickens, tools, and similar possessions. If owners tried to take away these privileges, they were often met with work slowdowns or other forms of resistance. Elsewhere, Penningroth describes free African Americans’ use of “associations,” or organizations formed with by-laws and constitutions that fall under “corporate” laws. These associations (which proliferated in the 19th century and included insurance groups, charitable organizations, and professional societies) provided a potent workaround for attaining legal standing for Black individuals, since the associations had more rights under the law than individual Black people. 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. (Sept.)