The best picture books about civil rights heroes (besides Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks)

Mara Rockliff Author Of Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
By Mara Rockliff

Who am I?

I am a children’s author best known for digging up fascinating stories about famous people—and forgotten people who deserve to be famous again. As a kid, I loved reading about the old days, but I wasn’t very interested in “history,” which seemed to be dull facts about a few Great Men. In college, though, I studied social movements and discovered that we all make history together, and that it takes the combined efforts of countless unsung heroes—just as brave, hardworking, and persistent as the big names everybody knows—to achieve real change. 


I wrote...

Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

By Mara Rockliff, R. Gregory Christie (illustrator),

Book cover of Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

What is my book about?

Georgia Gilmore was cooking when she heard the news. Mrs. Rosa Parks had been arrested—pulled off a city bus and thrown in jail. And all because she wouldn’t give up her seat to a white man. To protest, the radio was urging folks to stay off city buses for one day: December 5, 1955. A boycott! Something was cooking in Montgomery, Alabama...and not just Georgia’s famous sweet potato pie.

The inspiring true story of the woman whose cooking helped feed and fund the civil rights movement. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, a Caldecott Honor recipient and seven-time Coretta Scott King award-winning artist.

The books I picked & why

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Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down

By Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian Pinkney (illustrator),

Book cover of Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down

Why this book?

Joseph McNeil. Franklin McCain. David Richmond. Ezell Blair. These aren’t household names, but they should be. These four college boys—still in their teens—organized the 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This book shows how their daring not only drew in more protestors to join them, but set off a wave of sit-ins all across the South, and ultimately led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with the slogan “We are all leaders.” Pinkney even squeezes in a shout-out to the grassroots organizer Ella Baker. 

Child of the Civil Rights Movement

By Paula Young Shelton, Raul Colón (illustrator),

Book cover of Child of the Civil Rights Movement

Why this book?

I chose this picture book because it’s so well-written (including an unforgettable kid-friendly explanation of “Jim Crow”), because it’s a first-hand account by someone who took part in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery when she was only four years old, and because I liked the way the author showed the organizers as an “orchestra” composed of leaders such as Dorothy Cotton, Ralph Abernathy, and her own parents, Andrew and Jean Childs Young, rather than a solo act by Martin Luther King.

Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Jade Johnson (illustrator),

Book cover of Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins

Why this book?

When I studied the civil rights movement, nobody told me about Clara Luper or the Oklahoma City sit-ins, which took place a year and a half before the Greensboro sit-in. I didn’t even realize there was segregation that far west. Someday Is Now helps fill that common knowledge gap, but it’s also a solid introduction to “separate and unequal,” as well as a portrait of a teacher and civil rights activist who should be better known. It left me wanting to learn more about Luper and the children who joined her, especially Luper’s nine-year-old daughter Marilyn, who by her own account proposed the sit-in—without ever having heard of one!

Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights

By Beth Anderson, E.B. Lewis (illustrator),

Book cover of Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights

Why this book?

More than a century before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott, a schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings did the same on a streetcar in New York City. Her act of courage didn’t lead to a mass movement, but it did lead to a court case—which she won with the help of her lawyer, future U.S. president Chester A. Arthur.

I chose this book because it’s so important to recall that segregation wasn’t only in the South, and that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s built on a long history of resistance going back to the first slave ships that arrived on America’s shores.


Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

By Duncan Tonatiuh,

Book cover of Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation

Why this book?

Civil rights have been denied to many groups in the United States at different times in different ways—and sometimes in very much the same way, as I learned from this book about a landmark school desegregation case in 1946 in California. Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez didn’t understand why she had to go to the “Mexican school,” a rough shack without a playground or a cafeteria, when there was a much nicer public school close to her house. So her family decided to fight—not just for Sylvia and her brothers, but for all children in segregated schools in California. Ultimately, they won, with help (as Tonatiuh points out) from the American Jewish Congress, the Japanese American Citizens League, and the NAACP.


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