The best, most inspirational books about nonviolent leaders

Todd Hasak-Lowy Author Of We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World
By Todd Hasak-Lowy

Who am I?

In the early years of the Trump presidency, I looked for a subject that would inspire young readers, and keep me from falling into despair. I loved researching this topic and finding ways to do justice to the incredible people and the movements at the center of my book. Simply put, it was a joy to become an expert on this important topic. There are so many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of the world, but these stories give me hope that together we can create a better future for everyone.

I wrote...

We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World

By Todd Hasak-Lowy,

Book cover of We Are Power: How Nonviolent Activism Changes the World

What is my book about?

We Are Power brings to light the incredible individuals who have used nonviolent activism to change the world. The book explores questions such as what is nonviolent resistance and how does it work? In an age when armies are stronger than ever before, when guns seem to be everywhere, how can people confront their adversaries without resorting to violence themselves? Through key international movements as well as people such as Gandhi, Alice Paul, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Václav Havel, this book discusses the components of nonviolent resistance. It answers the question “Why nonviolence?” by showing how nonviolent movements have succeeded again and again in a variety of ways, in all sorts of places, and always in the face of overwhelming odds. The book includes endnotes, a bibliography, and an index.

The books I picked & why

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Gandhi Before India

By Ramachandra Guha,

Book cover of Gandhi Before India

Why this book?

We all know the Gandhi in sandals and white khadi robes, but how did Gandhi become Gandhi? Guha narrates the remarkable transformation of Gandhi from a timid, London-trained lawyer into a bold, inventive activist advocating for the rights of the Indian immigrant community in South Africa. This engaging, meticulously researched book describes the emergence of Gandhi’s intertwined philosophy and politics, which together reintroduced nonviolence as a potent force to the tumultuous twentieth century.

Alice Paul: Claiming Power

By J.D. Zahniser, Amelia Fry,

Book cover of Alice Paul: Claiming Power

Why this book?

Alice Paul is nearly as obscure as Gandhi is famous, but not because she deserves to be. Paul led the American suffrage movement during its final decade, from 1910 to 1919, when the nineteenth amendment was finally passed. Claiming Power is the best biography out there about the underappreciated Paul.  Zahniser and Fry detail the life of this indefatigable activist, who changed the suffrage movement from an often “ladylike,” deferential campaign to an unapologetically confrontational crusade. My own book emerged from a desire to tell Paul’s story as an example of nonviolent activism at work, because she is rarely understood in this context.  But make no mistake about it, Paul was a nonviolent leader of the first order.   

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

There is no shortage of fine books out there about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. Branch’s book, however, does the best job of situating King’s activism at the center of the larger story of the entire United States during this time. Among much else, Branch’s sprawling, riveting narrative (this 1000+ page volume is merely the first in a series of three) helps us see how a nonviolent movement influences as it responds to traditional, institutional sites of power. A truly illuminating book.

Havel: A Life

By Michael Zantovsky,

Book cover of Havel: A Life

Why this book?

Because of the enormous odds stacked against each movement of this sort, the story of every nonviolent leader has an unlikely element to it. But Vaclav Havel’s biography may be the most unlikely of all. A playwright, an intellectual, and, in his own words, a “bundle of nerves,” Havel nevertheless found himself leader of Czechoslovakia’s astonishing nonviolent Velvet Revolution in 1989, and soon after became the country’s first president following the fall of communism. A very human embodiment of humanist conviction, Havel’s life is one to study.

Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

By Nelson Mandela,

Book cover of Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

Why this book?

Long Walk to Freedom is the only book on my list written by its subject, and for this reason it may well be the most powerful. Mandela’s story—in broadest outlines—is well-known: activist, freedom fighter, prisoner, and, of course, leader of post-apartheid South Africa. But reading Mandela’s autobiography will change how you understand this man. Indeed, you will be transformed as you follow him through the radically different stages of his life, as he evolves from a violent rebel to a nonviolent visionary capable of ending apartheid without a bloody civil war, as he describes how the impossible becomes possible.  

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