There are several themes that emerge in this excellent book. The first has to do with how African-Americans led the struggle Masur describes, even as racially discriminatory laws made them vulnerable — whether to the whims of local officials exerting their discretion or to white mobs seeking legal cover for anti-Black violence. Another concerns how the language of race and class was, as Masur puts it, 'fungible': Even after the Civil War, legislation cracking down on 'vagrancy' and 'vagabondage' allowed state legislatures in the former Confederacy to practice discrimination under cover of laws that seemed 'race-neutral.' So much in this history was contingent; so much could turn on a single word. Toward the end of her book, Masur describes the debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1866, when senators haggled over who would be protected against racial discrimination, deciding to replace the inclusive word 'inhabitants' with the more restrictive 'citizens.' ... If this is a cleareyed book, it’s still a heartening one. Masur takes care to show not only the limitations of what was achieved at each step but also how even the smallest step could lead to another.
Masur wants to know what led increasingly influential politicians to adopt the view that Black people ought to 'have all the rights and privileges and immunities' that 'every citizen' had. In Masur’s account, the answer is a now-forgotten social mobilization of Black civil rights advocates who fought alongside White allies not only to undermine slavery but to establish basic equality for Blacks in the free states of the North ... Masur’s heroes are the social activists ... Masur’s book illuminates just how much was at stake in the fight over Black citizenship ... Masur’s fresh perspective lets us see famous episodes in a new light ... Masur’s book is a brilliant meditation on progress and its limits. Activists creatively targeted weak spots in the Constitution. In the 14th Amendment, they essentially established a second American republic ... Masur’s monumental account leaves no doubt that a generation of 19th-century racial egalitarians altered history. They forced white supremacists to change course, and they created resources used ever since by advocates in the fight for equality.
Prodigiously researching legislative and court records, pamphlets, petitions, and the press, [Masur] has shaped a remarkable and shattering book, a worthy successor to Ira Berlin’s 1974 Slaves Without Masters. Ms. Masur’s monumental account focuses not only on government-sanctioned pre-Civil War racism, but on the efforts by black activists and their white allies to compel America to make good on the 'created equal' pledge in the Declaration of Independence ... Much of the previous literature on the early struggles for racial equity has understandably focused on the movement to end slavery. In opening a window onto the suffering long endured by freedmen, Ms. Masur fills a vital gap in our understanding of this period. Combining meticulous scholarship with chilling storytelling, her book should mortify any reader who still doubts that America was in many ways built on a foundation of white supremacy and black oppression .. If most of what Ms. Masur discusses after 1858 feels anticlimactic, it is only because the story of postwar disillusionment is familiar, and the early saga breathtakingly fresh ... Speaking of fresh: do not look for Lincoln or Frederick Douglass to dominate this book. Instead, Ms. Masur introduces unsung heroes to vivify her saga. Agonizing as it is to read, it is no longer possible to ignore.