- Unjust Deeds: The Restrictive Covenant Cases and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement by Jeffery D. Gonda
Handed down in 1948, the Supreme Court's decision in Shelley v. Kramer was an early victory for the civil rights movement in the United States. After hearing arguments stemming from several cases involving racial discrimination in American cities, the Court ruled against state and local protection of restrictive housing covenants. In use since the early twentieth century in cities throughout the country, these notorious covenants excluded people of color from desirable neighborhoods by establishing home-sale contracts that prohibited future private sales to nonwhites. In addition to limiting African Americans' opportunities for social mobility through home ownership, restrictive covenants also helped form the foundation of the nation's expanding urban ghettos. Because courts had been reluctant to rule against private contracts in previous challenges to restrictive covenants, civil rights leaders understandably celebrated the 1948 decision as a victory against blatantly discriminatory housing practices.
Yet historians have largely dismissed the restrictive covenant cases as a relatively minor or fleeting victory in the long pursuit of racial justice and housing equality in the modern United States. After all, many point out, urban ghettos worsened in the years following Shelley v. Kramer. Perhaps, they suggest, the Supreme Court decision was not the triumph the civil rights movement hoped for. Jeffery D. Gonda challenges these historians to rethink their appraisal of the restrictive covenant cases. His account of Shelley v. Kramer's social history as [End Page 585] well as its broader impact considers these legal battles a foundational turning point for the civil rights movement's effort to litigate for racial justice.
Gonda aims to prove that the failure of the restrictive covenant cases to fully rectify the ill effects of residential segregation and ghettoization should not overshadow their more significant contributions to the history of the postwar civil rights movement. Contextualizing the court proceedings within the broader histories of the postwar American city and the emerging Cold War struggle over equal opportunity, Gonda also shows how the legal fight against housing discrimination enabled civil rights lawyers to develop and deploy a wide set of arguments against the protection of restrictive covenants. He emphasizes particularly the legacy of civil rights lawyers' adoption and use of social scientific scholarship on the production and consequences of racial segregation. Lawyers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) first engaged this scholarship in their efforts to overturn restrictive covenants. Their success in that context influenced their strategy in their legal battles to dismantle Jim Crow, most famously in their use of social scientific scholarship in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. This legal strategy proved so successful, Gonda argues, that it formed the cornerstone of the legal civil rights movement. Showing how this tactic emerged in the 1940s, rather than the 1950s or 1960s, Gonda both builds on and offers an important contribution to the growing literature on the "long civil rights movement." By concentrating on the cases that grew out of challenges to segregation outside of the American South, furthermore, Gonda makes a similarly important contribution to the scholarship on the struggle for civil rights in the urban North.
In addition to rethinking the significance of the NAACP's victory in Shelley v. Kramer, Gonda also offers a social history of the legal strategies that first worked their way through local courts before becoming the backbone of civil rights litigation. His work reminds us that legal history has a social history. Where traditional legal history is distinctly top-down, Gonda insists that this view of legal change "disembodies the law from its impact in the daily lives of black Americans and discounts their contributions and connections to the process of legal change" (11). By contrast, Gonda's approach shows how local communities and actors, like the African American families at the center of these cases and the black realtors that helped them break restrictive...