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.
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, shifting the focus away from iconic figures, mass protests, strategic lawsuits and federal legislation to highlight a neglected history of deeds, divorce petitions, corporate charters and other legal rights ... Penningroth 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 ... From this archive of private-law civil rights, Penningroth persuasively argues that historians and legal scholars have overlooked how extensively ordinary Black people understood and used the law in the century before the modern civil rights movement.
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.
Sweeping, extensively documented and elegantly written ... 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.