Review by Brian Tanguay
Prior to reading Until Justice Be Done by Kate Masur, a historian who teaches at Northwestern University, I assumed that the critical period in the struggle for civil and political rights for African Americans was the Reconstruction era which saw the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. But those amendments — which outlawed chattel slavery, conferred citizenship and equal protection under the law, and enshrined voting rights for former slaves and free African Americans alike — might not have come into being without nearly eight decades of dogged, persistent, indefatigable advocacy, agitation, and education, spearheaded by African Americans themselves.
Masur’s previous book, An Example for All the Land, focused on the District of Columbia, in which slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1862. Until Justice Be Done offers a broader inquiry, starting with the Revolution of 1776 and the unequivocal wording of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. This language held special significance for African Americans; it was taken at its word to mean all men, regardless of color, station or status. The struggle to secure civil rights — the ability to move freely within and between states, to enter into contracts, testify in court, own property and sue for redress — began with the fundamental, and radical, idea that African Americans belonged. The soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence was one thing, the reality of America was another; while many whites abhorred slavery, it didn’t mean they wanted African Americans in their towns and cities or to enjoy basic civil rights. The Constitution — a product of negotiation and compromise between slave and free states — didn’t prohibit discrimination at the state level or even define who was a citizen, limitations that made existence precarious for African Americans. As Masur points out, it was state and local governments that set the laws that governed people’s lives.
What’s remarkable about the period leading up to the Civil War, when the tension between free states and slave states finally became untenable, is the courage and bravery of African Americans. Consider their position: they were a despised, suspect minority with no political power, wealth or property, or protection under the law. Well into the 1820s the country debated and argued over the question of whether or not a free African American was a citizen of the United States. Questions of individual rights for black people were subordinated to notions of peace and safety for white people. And yet, despite these obstacles, and at risk of imprisonment, kidnapping and sale into slavery, violence from white mobs, and preemptive Black Laws in places like Ohio, African Americans built enduring alliances with abolitionists and Quakers, established newspapers, wrote and distributed pamphlets, and repeatedly petitioned federal and state officials for redress. This was the long ground game without which the Emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction amendments might not have happened. Masur writes: “Moral outrage at racist laws did not come naturally for most white Americans. In a world where discriminations of many kinds were commonplace, and where whites were predisposed to see people of African descent as a degraded class, the sense that such policies were unacceptable had to be taught and cultivated.”
Much of the work of teaching and cultivating was carried out by women who, lest we forget, were themselves largely without civil rights, political power, or protection of law. Women aided the abolitionist cause, raised money, spoke at meetings, and taught in African American schools. Until Justice Be Done pays tribute to the forgotten foundational work that must precede social change. Entrenched interests rarely concede power or privilege until required to do so, whether by law or force of arms, and even if so persuaded, rights won must be protected and defended against repeal. As we see in our own time, America is still grappling with the fact that it was born in slavery and weaned on racism.