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Tracing the American civil rights movement that started long before the Civil War

In her new book, historian Kate Masur examines the early activists who envisioned the United States as a multi-racial nation

Given the voting restrictions recently passed into law in Georgia, Kate Masur’s new book, “Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction” (W.W. Norton, 2021), provides a timely look at America’s long history of anti-Black racism and organized efforts to build a multiracial democracy.

Kate Masur
Kate Masur

Masur is associate professor of history at Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

In her book, she examines an earlier phase of the struggle for civil rights that started with the American Revolution. During this period, northern states gradually abolished slavery and the nation’s free Black population grew dramatically. Americans in the free states then confronted the question of what a post-slavery society should look like. White Americans were vastly divided. Some insisted that free Black people should leave the country altogether, and some free states passed laws targeting free Black people for discriminatory treatment. 

“A civil rights movement arose to challenge these ideas. The activists of this first civil rights movement condemned racist thinking and insisted on envisioning the United States as a multiracial society,” Masur said. “They were the first to grapple with what a post-slavery United States should look like, and their ideas formed a foundation for struggles to come.” 

Masur discusses with Northwestern Now the lessons learned by these early activists that can be drawn upon today.

What were some of the notable successes of the movement you write about? 

This movement helped ensure that the principle of racial equality before the law would enter federal law and the U.S. Constitution. It may be hard to fathom today, but nothing in the original Constitution and Bill of Rights stood in the way of states adopting laws that explicitly discriminated based on race.

The Black and white activists in this movement spent decades arguing that the states and the entire nation must reject not just slavery itself, but laws that drew distinctions based on race. The movement enjoyed some successes, but for decades it was unable to alter federal policy, largely because of slaveholders’ power in the U.S. government. The Civil War changed the equation dramatically. Taking advantage of the moment, Republicans pushed for the nation’s first federal civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which declared that citizens “of every race or color” are entitled to the same basic rights as “white citizens,” and for the 14th Amendment, which forbids states from denying to any person due process or equal protection of the law. The principle of racial equality before the law — and the equal protection promises of the 14th Amendment — remain critically important in the United States to this day. 

Your book reveals the origins of political rhetoric used to suppress the rights and voices of Black citizens. What are some of those phrases we still hear in American public life?

Americans regularly merged claims about race and class when trying to justify exclusionary policies. For instance, in states like Ohio and Illinois, legislators argued that they must try to discourage African American migration into their states because Black people were poor and would be a drain on public resources or disruptive to communities. The activists of the first civil rights movement demanded an end to such racist generalizations. Today, policymakers are less prone to adopt explicitly racist rhetoric. More often, they justify policies designed to exclude or regulate potential migrants — who happen to be people of color — with false claims that they are not hard workers, are prone to crime, and so forth. We see rhetoric like this in discussions of immigration and housing, for example. What people are doing is avoiding explicit reference to race while invoking racialized ideas about work, criminality and virtue. 

What tactics did these early civil rights activists successfully employ that can offer insights for social justice activists today?

The movement I study was interested in gaining political power so they could change policy at the local, state and federal levels. This was extremely challenging, particularly since the most committed among these activists were African Americans, and in most free states, Black men were not permitted to vote. The Black activists in this movement were generally more progressive on questions of racial equality than their white potential allies. But people had to find ways of building coalitions, because without that, little would change politically. Also, this movement took time. These folks lost a lot of battles but ultimately won some big ones. When the Civil War provided an opening, they stepped forward with a very ambitious agenda and managed to get a lot of it accomplished. 

What techniques did lawmakers use to suppress the voting rights of Black Americans after the passage of the 15th Amendment?

Right now, we’re seeing a serious assault on citizens’ right to vote, and the methods for doing it are reminiscent of the 19th century.

The Mississippi constitution of 1890 — which was on the cutting edge of disenfranchisement — said nothing about race when it spelled out qualifications for voters. It did, though, provide complex rules for registration, require voters to pay a “poll tax” of $2, and mandate that voters must be able to read the state constitution or offer a “reasonable interpretation” of it.

Right now, we’re seeing a serious assault on citizens’ right to vote, and the methods for doing it are reminiscent of the 19th century.

Kate Masur

Measures like these, combined with the discretion given to local registrars, made it much more difficult for Black men to vote, and Black voting plummeted in the South starting in the 1890s. Policies like these also disenfranchised some white men, but the Democratic politicians who authored these measures didn’t mind. Their goal was to win elections, and they knew they were unlikely to prevail if all people who were eligible to vote actually voted. States only opened voting to all their citizens after a vast popular protest movement and new federal legislation, especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court undermined the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder, and today, legislation designed to restrict citizens’ access to the vote is under discussion in 47 states. Sponsored mainly by Republicans, these measures don’t mention race explicitly but are designed to have a disproportionate impact on groups that tend to vote Democratic, especially African Americans, Latinos and young people of all kinds. Once again, we are looking at a threat to American democracy driven by a party worried that it cannot win elections if everyone who’s eligible is permitted to vote. 

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