Book Summary – Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement

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Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution To Reconstruction, By Kate Masur 

Brief Overview

Chief Justice Taney in the infamous Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford  (1857) argued that as a constitutional matter, blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  This was an exaggerated summary.  Dred Scott’s own suit for freedom from slavery was but one of many at the time, the law offering a limited path to freedom for many slaves.

But, quite obviously, blacks were in an inferior position in both law and society at large. Freedom from slavery itself provided certain limited rights.  But, segregation laws, laws prohibiting blacks from testifying in court, requirements to register with local authorities with proof that you would not become a public charge, and many more racist laws existed.   

This book provides an accounting of what is labeled as the “first civil rights movement.”  Using various case studies (with a special focus on events in Ohio), the fight to allow blacks to live in dignity and have basic rights are examined. The lives of blacks and black activists are repeatedly examined along with white supporters such as John Quincy Adams.

The book concludes by examining the path to the Civil Rights Act (1866) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868). Whites and blacks “worked together to demand racial equality in civil rights.”  Their success was limited but provided an important precedent for future battles.  

Favorite Quote  

In this book, my goal was to create a more precise account of how the ideas of race, rights, citizenship, and federalism that are crystallized in those monumental measures of 1866 [Civil Rights Act and Fourteenth Amendment] made their way into the mainstream of northern politics and then into federal policy. 

This quote provides a summary of a basic theme of the book, including the multiple aspects of the fight for racial equality in the time period covered.  

Should I Read It?

This book is probably geared to those who are at least somewhat familiar with the general details of antebellum racial history in the United States.  It can be enjoyed by the educated amateur historian as well as those with more learning in the field.  The book might have potential as part of the reading for a college course on the subject matter.  

Until Justice Is Done is not written in a technical academic language. It has multiple snapshots that provide narratives of the many historical characters involved.  This makes it a smoother read.  The book also has a ten page photo insert that adds to the reading experience.  Some might rather tackle a shorter book, this one over three hundred and fifty pages.  

Those familiar with the material will find some of the subject matter familiar such as controversies involving black sailors in Southern ports.  These chapters still have many details that will add to the reader’s understanding of antebellum civil rights battles.  

In general, those interested in black history will find this an important addition to the literature, covering an often poorly examined subject.  

Comprehensive Summary


The first civil rights movement in the United States began in the era of the American Revolution.  It was a battle demanding citizenship and equal rights for Black Americans. 

The movement was broad based including pastors, journalists, lawyers, politicians, and ordinary citizens [some not accepted as citizens by racist laws].  The movement largely started in states, but eventually became a national political question.  The end of slavery did not end the battle.  

Chapter 1: Free-State Antiblack Laws in the Early Republic

The Old Northwest (Great Lakes region) was established via the Northwest Ordinance as a slave-free zone.  Nonetheless, states like Ohio passed racist laws, including methods to disencourage black settlement such as requiring proof of freedom and assurance that you would not be dependent on public relief.  

There was a movement beginning during the years of the American Revolution that not only opposed slavery but recognized the fundamental rights of all persons.  Many black voices arose opposing limits on their rights.  Meanwhile, a movement to colonize former slaves arose.  

Chapter 2: Privileges and Immunities in the 1820s

As the number of free blacks rose and the slavery conflict began more divisive, a basic dispute arose over the question of black citizenship.  

Could free blacks become citizens at all, including having “privileges and immunities” recognized by Art. IV of the federal Constitution that would arise from state citizenship?  Would a New York free black be protected when traveling to Ohio or (the horror) a slave state such as Georgia?  Southerners were particularly concerned about the idea blacks could be citizens.

This question was part of the Missouri Compromise conflict. A major dispute arose when Gilbert Norton was jailed in Washington D.C.  A free-born black resident of New York, Norton argued his citizenship rights were being violated.  His freedom was eventually granted, the wider issue of black citizenship remained unclear and widely not recognized by many legal authorities.  

Chapter 3: Ohio Abolitionists in the 1830s

Cincinnati, Ohio was one center of free blacks, about one-tenth of the city’s population.  Blacks formed their own institutions, including a church and independent schools.  Economic problems led whites to pressure authorities to enforce anti-black laws. 

Blacks fought back, helped by a growing abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement.  The support of white people was new, bringing evangelical passion and organizational resources.  The battle to change the racist laws was an uphill one, neither Democrats or Whigs supporting it.  But, the message of black equality grew in popularity, even if immediate success seemed hopeless.  

Chapter 4: African American Sailors in Southern Ports in the 1830s

One major conflict in antebellum times was the question of the rights of black sailors.  Southern states had strong laws against them, including jailing black sailors who came to their ports.  Southern states feared black sailors would cause problems, their freedom of movement being a threat to slavery.  

The topic raised various questions involving state police power, interstate commerce, the rights of foreign sailors, and the privileges and immunities of the blacks from Northern states.  Massachusetts in particular was concerned about the rights of their black residents as they traveled to other states.  Did they not have rights like other interstate travelers?  

The chapter adds some personal details of individual black sailors, which is often lacking when this subject is discussed in general histories.  

Chapter 5: State-to-State Conflict/Limits of Congress in the 1840s

The battle against slavery and the rights of blacks began to be more of an issue in Congress in the 1830s and 1840s.  A House report, for example, supported the right of free blacks sailors to travel.  A few anti-slavery members of Congress, including John Quincy Adams, were elected.  

Massachusetts continued to be a leader in this effort, including planning to send official agents to the South to protect the rights of black citizens and opposing the ⅗ Clause of the Constitution.  There was also pushback from slave states such as Alabama and South Carolina. 

Chapter 6: Liberty Party and Repeal of Ohio Black Laws in the 1840s

An anti-slavery third party, the Liberty Party, developed in the North, and began to play a major role as a swing group in Ohio between the major two parties (Whigs and Democrats).  Political developments (explained in the chapter) led to the end of many racist laws in Ohio except for bans on jury duty and discriminatory poor relief laws.  

The Liberty Party opposed all forms of prejudice; persons should be treated as individuals.  It also gave blacks a means to fight for their rights, including as lecturers, even if they could not vote.  State campaigns for voting rights failed in all states but Rhode Island.  Discriminatory laws involving public accommodations and schools did end in Massachusetts.  

[Those interested in the Massachusetts public school segregation battle might enjoy the book Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick.]

Chapter 7: Illinois and a Nation Divided in the 1850s

Illinois, like Ohio, had anti-black laws including registration requirements, the inability of blacks to serve on juries, and denial of the right to vote.  The state, like the nation, was divided with the southern part much more anti-black. A new state constitution supported blocking black migration into the state.  Anti-migration efforts arose in many Northern states.

A new national fugitive slave act passed in 1850 was a major conflict in the decade, including radicalizing many whites against “the slave power.”  The Dred Scott decision was handed down and the major battle between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln for U.S. Senate took place.  Opposition to the spread of slavery helped the creation of a new party, the Republicans.  

Chapter 8: Republicans in Power during the Civil War, 1861-1865

Republicans gained control of the federal government in the election of 1860, dominating even more when eleven southern states rebelled, taking nearly all of their members of Congress with them.  A major sign of change was the District of Columbia, long a battlefield in the area of civil rights.  Federal support of recovering fugitive slaves ended and slavery itself ended in D.C.  

The Lincoln Administration, contrary to the apparent demands of Dred Scott, also determined that some blacks can be citizens.  Slavery also was officially ended in the U.S. territories.  Service in the military provided a major chance for blacks to show they deserved to be treated as citizens. Wartime also led to some end of racist laws in certain states.  

Chapter 9: Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment

Anti-slavery leader William Garrison saw the end of slavery, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, as a sign that the effort against racism was complete. Many, especially people like Frederick Douglass (free black, born in slavery, major leader in civil rights movement), disagreed.  The road to true black equality as citizens was far from over.  

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln meant Southerner Andrew Johnson was in charge. Johnson felt the end of the Civil War and slavery was enough.  National Republicans disagreed, especially as ex-Confederate states turned against freed blacks.  A national civil rights law, re-enforced by the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, was passed. And, black voting rights were protected nation-wide with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment.  

[Many books covered this time period.  One recent volume deals with the competing concerns of Frederick Douglas, President Johnson, and the Republicans: The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson by Robert S. Levine.]


The Reconstruction turned out to be a short period of success for civil rights.  The limits were soon seen by the limited gloss given to the Fourteenth Amendment by the Supreme Court in multiple cases in the 1870s and 1880s.  Congress moved on, letting “home rule” (white rule) dominate in the former Confederate states.  

Limits also were seen in the North, including the Indiana Supreme Court upholding a ban on interracial marriage.  But, the rollback was more limited in the North, many of the antebellum racist laws no more.  Nonetheless, it took a second civil rights movement in the mid-20th Century for a more equal — if with much more to do — nation to be truly a reality.  

Note On Historiography 

The book ends with a discussion on the author’s historical techniques.   

Points to Ponder

I have seen many summaries of the antebellum era — at times by legal and historical experts — that seem to agree (if not with his acceptance of it) with Chief Justice Taney’s summary of race relations and the law. This book provides a more complex picture, including largely forgotten fights and at times successes in the path to racial equality.   

What do you think is the cause of such a somewhat simplistic all or nothing view?  What are the problems with it?  How does it apply to other cases, such as questions involving women?  

The author labels her subject as the “first civil rights movement.”  Consider that often the period is studied with a special focus on anti-slavery.  But, civil rights is wider than the end of slavery.  Many opponents of slavery still were quite racist, helping to explain why free blacks in the North had so much trouble obtaining equal rights.  What do you think?  

About the Author

Book website.  

Kate Masur is a professor of history at Northwestern University.  She also wrote:

  • An Example for All Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington D.C.
  • The World The Civil War Made (co-edited with Gregory P. Downs)
  • They Knew Lincoln by John E. Washington  (editor)  

Is “Until Justice Be Done” a Reliable Read? 

I found the book reliable.  The author is a scholar in the field examined. The book has extensive endnotes.  Also, those interested can examine a “symposium” starting here (continuing until early June), where various legal and historian experts examine the book and provide high praise.  I’m more comfortable in my recommendation with such support.  

By Joe Cocurullo