Image - speaker and detail from his book cover
Past Event

Dylan Penningroth: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights

The story of the American Civil Rights Movement is often told like this: The country's legal system shut out Black people and refused to recognize their rights, dignity or even their lives. When lynch mobs formed, police and judges often closed their eyes, if they didn't join in. Law was hostile to Black people. Then in the 1940s, a few brave lawyers began to take on the law, and soon ordinary African Americans were spurred by Supreme Court victories and by racial justice activists into launching the Civil Rights Movement.

UC Berkeley historian Dr. Dylan Penningroth revised that conventional story, and he tells a deeper history in his new book Before the Movement. He'll come to the Club for an in-person, in-depth discussion of how he drew on long-forgotten sources found in the basements of county courthouses across the nation to uncover the ways that African Americans, far from being ignorant about the law until the mid-20th century, have thought about it, talked about it and used it as far back as the era of slavery. They dealt constantly with the laws of property, contract, inheritance, marriage and divorce, of associations (such as churches and businesses and activist groups) and more. By exercising these “rights of everyday use,” Penningroth demonstrates, they made Black rights seem unremarkable. And in innumerable subtle ways, they helped shape the law itself―the laws all of us live under today.

Join us as Penningroth, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, challenges the accepted understandings of Black history and puts Black people back at the center of their story.


Speaker photo by Saroyan Humphrey.

February 22, 2024

The Commonwealth Club of California
110 The Embarcadero
Toni Rembe Rock Auditorium
San Francisco, CA 94105
United States

Image - Dylan Penningroth

Dylan Penningroth

Professor of Law and History, UC Berkeley; Author, Before the Movement: The Hidden History of Black Civil Rights

Image - LaDoris Cordell

In Conversation with LaDoris Cordell

Judge (Ret); Author, Her Honor: My Life on the Bench . . . What Works, What’s Broken, and How to Change It