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

A Lecture by Kate Masur

Society Event: Until Justice Be Done, Kate Masur

Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction is a groundbreaking history of the movement for equal rights that courageously battled racist laws and institutions, Northern and Southern, in the decades before the Civil War.

The half-century before the Civil War was beset with conflict over equality as well as freedom. Beginning in 1803, many free states enacted laws that discouraged free African Americans from settling within their boundaries and restricted their rights to testify in court, move freely from place to place, work, vote, and attend public school. But over time, African American activists and their white allies, often facing mob violence, courageously built a movement to fight these racist laws. They countered the states’ insistences that states were merely trying to maintain the domestic peace with the equal-rights promises they found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They were pastors, editors, lawyers, politicians, ship captains, and countless ordinary men and women, and they fought in the press, the courts, the state legislatures, and Congress, through petitioning, lobbying, party politics, and elections. Long stymied by hostile white majorities and unfavorable court decisions, the movement’s ideals became increasingly mainstream in the 1850s, particularly among supporters of the new Republican party. When Congress began rebuilding the nation after the Civil War, Republicans installed this vision of racial equality in the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. These were the landmark achievements of the first civil rights movement.

Kate Masur’s magisterial history delivers this pathbreaking movement in vivid detail. Activists such as John Jones, a free Black tailor from North Carolina whose opposition to the Illinois “black laws” helped make the case for racial equality, demonstrate the indispensable role of African Americans in shaping the American ideal of equality before the law. Without enforcement, promises of legal equality were not enough. But the antebellum movement laid the foundation for a racial justice tradition that remains vital to this day.

Kate Masur is a Professor of History at Northwestern University. She specializes in the history of race, politics, and law in the nineteenth-century United States. She is the author of Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction.

Professor Masur has consulted extensively with museums and arts organizations including the National Constitution Center and the Newberry Library. She was part of the editorial team that created Reconstruction: The Official National Park Service Handbook, and she co-authored, with Gregory Downs, The Era of Reconstruction, 1861-1900, a National Historic Landmark Theme Study published in 2017.

Masur’s scholarship has recently appeared in The Journal of the Civil War Era and the American Journal of Legal History, in volumes on the Memphis Massacre and biographical film in history, and as commentary in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the Washington Post’s Made By History.