The Twists and Turns of Black History (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, early Republic

Jill Watts, a professor of history at California State University, San Marcos, is the author of “The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt.”

America’s First Civil Rights Movement, From the Revolution to Reconstruction
By Kate Masur
480 pp. Norton. $32.

Assertions that the modern struggle for civil rights was a “long movement” that commenced well before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) have been a subject of recent and ardent debate. While most of these discussions center on the 20th century, Masur, an associate professor at Northwestern, skillfully establishes that “America’s first civil rights movement” started as far back as the late 18th century. The free states of the North and Midwest, she insightfully argues, constituted a “post-slavery” society where resistance to anti-Black laws formed a foundation for later federal legislation and constitutional reform.

Masur’s careful study begins with free states and localities passing laws that restricted Black mobility, property rights and access to the justice system. Black communities were subjected to white terrorism and violent treatment by white authorities. Black Americans protested, leading an early push for civil rights. What started out as individual and isolated efforts eventually consolidated into organized resistance with the African Methodist Episcopal Church emerging at the forefront. White abolitionists, along with a few white businessmen and politicians, joined in, sometimes working with Black leaders and at other times driving ahead separately. All activists agreed that Black Americans deserved liberty and property. Still, a significant proportion of whites opposed the Black vote and denied Black humanity.

Some may object to such a broad definition of what constitutes a civil rights movement. But Masur deftly reveals how the loose nature of unlikely antebellum coalitions propelled justice’s fight. A milestone came with the case of Gilbert Horton, a free Black man jailed as a fugitive slave in the District of Columbia. His supporters secured his release, arguing that his detention was unconstitutional under the “privileges and immunities clause.” This victory, and others like it, eventually influenced key policies during Reconstruction, specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment. Masur’s account speaks across time, revealing how this federal legislation became the foundation for a new vision.

Read entire article at New York Times

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