Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kate Masur

Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction cover imageSummary: The movement for Civil Rights prior to the Civil War is an under-told story and one which is important to the context of both the Reconstruction Era and the later Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. 

Until Justice Be Done provided historical context for an era in which I did not have a lot of background. I have studied the Revolutionary War period and the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era. Still, my understanding of the history between the Revolution and the Civil War has primarily been through individual biographies, and Until Justice Be Done was helpful. (It was also on the shortlist for finalists for the Pulitizer as well as several other book awards which both confirms what I thought about the writing and verified the quality of the historical work.)

There were five big takeaways for me from the book.

First, the English poor laws were intended to require the care of the poor but were used both in England and the US as a way to keep the poor out of local communities, which turned the original purpose of those laws on its head. I could not help but think of Jesus’ comments about technically following the law but missing the point of the law (Matt 15:4-10, Mark 7: 1-23) when the religious leaders were claiming that they did not have resources help the poor because they had pledged money to God.

“But race was not the only kind of difference that was significant in this society, and many of the racist laws in Ohio and elsewhere were built atop laws designed to address challenges of poverty and dependency. These legal structures dated back to the sixteenth century and the English tradition of managing the poor. Local governments in England had responded to a rising population of mobile poor people and their demands for aid by establishing regulations designed to distinguish between those who belonged in the community and those who did not. The core idea in the English poor-law tradition was that families and communities were obliged to provide for their own dependent poor, but not for transients and strangers.” (p4)

Second, as hinted at in the quote above, skin color (race) was used to permanently mark people as “other.” Even when used appropriately, the poor laws were temporary categories. Ideally, someone who was poor and who was supported by the community could reach an economic status where they were no longer poor. The temporary status as “poor” became a permanent marker even for non-poor racial minorities. (This was primarily applied to Black residents of the US in the late 18th and early 19th century, where the book is concerned. But it was also applied to Native Americans and, to a lesser extent, Chinese on the west coast. Primarily this was about anti-Black racism, but it included others as well when there were other racial categories present.)

Third, I was aware of how supporters of slavery attempted to use the federal government’s powers to uphold slavery. However, I was not aware of how abolitionists directly used the example of the fugitive slave clause to attempt to force the federal government to defend free Black rights. This comes to a head in the Dred Scott decision, where the Supreme Court essentially says that no Black residents of the United States could have full citizenship rights that the federal or state governments were compelled to recognize.

Those lack of citizenship rights were not just opposition to voting or a lack of defense of the rights to move freely for commerce, but also a lack of rights within the courts. Ohio and other states explicitly passed laws in the early 19th century forbidding Black residents (they were being excluded from citizenship rights) from testifying in court or bringing suit against White plaintiffs. This tacitly allowed the violation of other rights (such as property laws or violence and lynching) to proceed because Black residents were legally prevented from using the courts to enforce justice. Later Jim Crow systems also involved restrictions on access to courts, but from the early days of the US, that lack of access to the courts was understood as a violation of the country’s ideals.

A fourth takeaway is that I did find the early example of differences in state laws impacting people is relevant to the current discussions about gay marriage. The Missouri constitution (and later Texas, Oregon, and other states) banned Black Americans’ migration to those states. This was viewed as a violation of the federal constitution’s “privileges and immunities clause.” The tension between the role of federal and state has always been present, but as Eric Foner’s Second Founding (on the 13-15th Amendments) makes clear, there was a real shift in legal thinking and approach toward the balance of state and federal governments after the Civil War, because of

Fifth, international pressure can, in many ways, bring about change differently. One of the big problems of the early 19th century was southern ports arresting Black sailors off of ships. There was little interest in the problem when those Black sailors were from northern ports, although northern governors and abolitionists attempted to press the federal government to address the problem. But the US had treaties with the British and other foreign countries, and arresting Black sailors who were British or French citizens became a much more difficult problem for the US federal government to ignore. This is reminiscent of the pressure the US Department of State put on the US Justice Department because of how the Soviet Union used civil rights as a wedge in the cold war.

Until Justice Be Done is a fairly long book (nearly 500 pages), but it did not drag. I have 57 highlights from Let Justice Be Done that you can read on my Goodreads page.

Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kate Masur Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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