The Twists and Turns of Black History

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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.


The African American Struggle for Civil Rights

By Thomas C. Holt

176 pp. Oxford University. $18.95.

For those seeking to historically contextualize Black Lives Matter, Holt, a professor at the University of Chicago, provides an essential and readable primer on the mid-20th-century civil rights movement. Holt movingly introduces this concise history with the story of his grandmother’s brave refusal to take a seat in the back of a bus in 1944. He acknowledges that such activism had antecedents as far back as the 19th century. However, and importantly, he views the post-World War II freedom movement as a unique departure, defining this “classical” phase of the civil rights struggle as “the mass mobilization of Black communities to challenge their racially subordinated civil status.” Holt rejects, to a degree, the “long movement” narrative and instead focuses on mid-20th-century local activism.

The modern push for civil rights, Holt convincingly demonstrates, was first incubated in the rapidly changing cities of the postwar South. Widespread demographic shifts increased Black resistance to Jim Crow. The growth of integrated military bases brought Black soldiers, many who had fought abroad for democracy, into Southern cities, while the empowerment of Black college and high school students fueled nonviolent protest campaigns throughout the urban South. The early agenda of these actions centered on integrating public transportation and public spaces. Later, it shifted to embrace a push for votes and jobs.

Holt adroitly traces the evolution of activism throughout time and across regions. From the cities, the movement spread into rural areas where circumstances were different and, with the intense isolation and grip of white terrorism, more deadly. There, voter registration took priority. Even though the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed in the mid-60s, the escalation of white violence induced some activists to question Gandhian tactics and even integration. As the movement expanded into Northern and Western cities, it adopted separatism and concentrated on education, employment and housing. Its victories over all were limited, but Holt’s study illuminates the movement’s successful legacy.

A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement
Edited by Pamela Horowitz and Jeanne Theoharis

400 pp. Beacon. $29.95.

Few were better situated to teach the history of the mid-20th-century civil rights movement than the late Julian Bond, who, along with John Lewis and others, founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. This series of inspiring lectures, which Bond delivered in his popular college courses, is an indispensable master class that resonates with the current times. Within a broad synthesis of the freedom movement, Bond reflects stirringly on his own experiences, making this deep dive into civil rights history an engaging memoir as well as a guide for 21st-century crusades for equal rights. The dynamic narrative is made even more so by Danny Lyon’s photographs of the era.

Bond grounds the freedom movement in the nascent activism and longer historical transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Bond notes, World War II sped up the struggle, then Brown v. Board of Education set a legal precedent for desegregation and the Montgomery bus boycott became the springboard for protest. Like other recent scholars and writers, Bond agrees that successful campaigns for integration and voting rights were rooted in local leadership, activism and agendas.

Significant progress didn’t come until the 1960s — and Bond, drawing heavily from his own experiences, presents SNCC as the main catalyst. Successful student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the South were the first genuine deployment of nonviolent direct action. These also “democratized the movement,” which increased the mobilization and empowerment of the masses. In Southern urban and rural areas, people risked their lives to win the rights legislation of the 1960s. SNCC’s turn toward Black nationalism, which Bond views as a tactical mistake (an assertion some will disagree with), combined with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, marked the end of the civil rights movement. Yet Bond’s message to his students and to us is one of hope: While the quest for equal rights remains unfulfilled, the promise remains.

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