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Dylan C Penningroth in conversation with Richard Ford

October 11, 2023 @ 6:00 pm

City Lights and Liveright Books celebrate the publication of

Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights

By Dylan C Penningroth

published by Liveright Books

A prize-winning scholar draws on astonishing new research to demonstrate how Black people used the law to their advantage long before the Civil Rights Movement.

The familiar story of civil rights goes something like this: Once, the American legal system was dominated by racist officials who shut Black people out and refused to recognize their basic human dignity. Then, starting in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers ventured south, bent on changing the law—and soon, everyday African Americans joined with them to launch the Civil Rights Movement. In Before the Movement, historian Dylan C. Penningroth overturns this story, demonstrating that Black people had long exercised “the rights of everyday use,” and that this lesser-known private-law tradition paved the way for the modern vision of civil rights. Well-versed in the law, Black people had used it to their advantage for nearly a century to shape how they worked, worshiped, learned, and loved. Based on long-forgotten sources found in the basements of county courthouses, Before the Movement recovers a vision of Black life allied with, yet distinct from, “the freedom struggle.”

Dylan C. Penningroth is a professor of law and history at the University of California, Berkeley. Recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and author of the award-winning The Claims of Kinfolk, he lives in Kensington, California.

Richard Ford is an award winning novelist and short story writer, best known for his novels featuring Frank Bascombe. He received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Independence Day. His novel Wildlife was adapted into a 2018 film of the same name, and in 2023 Ford published Be Mine, his fifth work of fiction chronicling the life of Frank Bascombe.

What has been said about Before the Movement”This deeply researched book completely rewrites the history of African Americans and their struggles law from the close of slavery through the 1960s. Even at the height of the Jim Crow era, Black Americans went to courthouses, used law in their everyday lives, formed churches and legal associations, and forced white Americans to contend with important legal rules that they helped create. Their story had been a “hidden history” until Penningroth’s painstaking efforts brought it to light, and their engagement with law has left us with multiple notions of what it means to fight for ‘civil rights.”
-Kenneth W. Mack

“With sweeping elegance, Before the Movement reveals how for Black Americans law has been neither a cudgel of white supremacy nor a torch of liberation. Dylan Penningroth instead takes readers inside the everyday life of law – much of it unfolding in local courthouses. Long denied the protection of the Constitution, Black Americans fashioned common-law civil rights. The heroes here are only sometimes credential lawyers or black-robed judges; Penningroth foremost celebrates how together ordinary Black folk wangled rights from rules about property and contract, earning them a faith in law that undergirded the modern Civil Rights movement. Penningroth is tireless researcher and gifted storyteller who elevates Black American’s everyday legal struggles to their rightful and enduring place in our national story.”
-Martha S. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

“Whether buying a house, marching to the courthouse, or tithing at the Lord’s House, Black people grace these pages in what I’d consider the most masterful treatment yet written on the business of African American freedom. Dylan Penningroth challenges our tendency to limit Black struggles for justice to their pursuits of national belonging. The result is an incredible and transformative book that has given the history of civil rights its proper and fullest accounting.”
-N. D. B. Connolly, author of A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida

“[This b]road-ranging study showing the many ways in which Black people, enslaved and free, used custom and law to assert their rights in the years before the Civil Rights Movement coalesced . . . In a fluent narrative, Penningroth shows how these rights were negotiated and developed in sometimes unlikely contexts, all foregrounding the advances of the 1950s and beyond. A closely argued addition to our understanding of the origins of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Kirkus Reviews

This event is made possible by support from the City Lights Foundation. To learn more visit: https://citylights.com/foundation/


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