The best books featuring trail-blazing lawyers passionately fighting for social justice

Lise Pearlman Author Of Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender
By Lise Pearlman

Who am I?

I am a retired lawyer and judge with a long-held concern about access to justice, especially as we face the need for stepped-up activism to protect minority rights today. I first became fascinated by Fay Stender’s pioneering career as a board member of California Women Lawyers, which she helped found in 1974. I related to her passion for justice, which led me to research and write her biography and two books on “the trial of the century” of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton. That trial took place in my home city of Oakland over half a century ago, yet its focus on systemic racism remains just as important now.

I wrote...

Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

By Lise Pearlman,

Book cover of Call Me Phaedra: The Life and Times of Movement Lawyer Fay Stender

What is my book about?

Call Me Phaedra provides an inside view of activism during the McCarthy Era, the Civil Rights Movement, Free Speech Era, the rise of black power, and the Women’s Rights Movement. It chronicles the extraordinary life and career of Fay Stender as a rare female criminal defense lawyer who championed black revolutionary clients and became a ground-breaking prisoners’ rights advocate. Her work both won her international acclaim as a top Movement lawyer and propelled her to a tragic end.

Stender’s saga will fascinate readers of all ages interested in the history of American activism and, particularly, women who challenged white-male monopoly power. Those working to change American society for the better today can draw valuable lessons from this award-winning biography and history book – the only published biography of Fay Stender.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Relevant Lawyers: Conversations Out of Court on Their Clients, Practice, Politics and Life Style

Why did I love this book?

I recommend Ginger’s book because it inspired so many college students to go into law as well as young lawyers interested in effecting societal change. In one chapter, Ginger interviews Fay Stender, a source I consulted in writing Stender’s biography. Ginger also interviewed Fay’s law partner Charles Garry about his representation with Stender of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton in the case I consider the trial of the century. Fay’s husband Marvin Stender was also interviewed about his progressive law practice. Ginger’s book, and my interviews of Ann Ginger herself, proved essential to my understanding of the circle of Movement lawyers in the Bay Area to which they all heavily contributed during an extraordinary period of activism from the ‘50s through the ‘70s.     

By Ann Fagen Ginger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Relevant Lawyers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

See what lawyers have to say about their business and the people involved.

Book cover of Streetfighter in the Courtroom: The People's Advocate

Why did I love this book?

Charles Garry was a legendary Bay Area criminal defense lawyer from the 1940s through the 1980s, most famous for his aggressive courtroom tactics and for never losing a client to the death penalty. I was fascinated by Garry’s early cases that resulted in establishing a “diminished capacity” defense to murder in California. Garry’s reputation prompted the leadership of the Black Panther Party to reject calls for a black lawyer and instead turn to this white Lefty to represent their co-founder Huey Newton faced with execution for killing a white policeman. Streetfighter in the Courtroom proved a great source for me as I wrote two books on the Newton trial and the biography of Garry’s pioneering female co-counsel in the Newton trial, Fay Stender. 

By Charles R. Garry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Streetfighter in the Courtroom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By legendary radical lawyer, Charles R. Garry and Art Goldberg. ISBN 978-0525211105. "Art Goldberg, who assisted Charles Garry on this book, was a reported and editor of Ramparts (magazine) during the politically active sixties. He is the coauthor, with Bobby Seale, of Seize the Time."


By Gilbert Moore,

Book cover of Rage

Why did I love this book?

I contacted Gilbert Moore in 2014 to share how valuable his book Rage was to my perspective as an author writing about the ground-breaking defense in the 1968 “trial of the century”, People v. Newton. Moore covered that headliner for LIFE magazine as its first black reporter. He agreed to be interviewed for our documentary project American Justice on Trial. Tragically, he died before the interview occurred. Watching that extraordinary trial caused Moore to engage in soul-searching, quit his plum job, and write his critically acclaimed book about the epiphany he experienced. Rage is considered a classic in African-American literature – an unparalleled window into the impact of that unprecedented Movement trial on pioneering black professionals in a white supremacist environment – through the eyes and pen of a firsthand observer.   

By Gilbert Moore,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Black reporter's contemporary account of his personal and professional reactions to Huey Newton's trial for murder is accompanied by new material setting the case in its historical context

Book cover of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Why did I love this book?

Michelle Alexander launched her book with the ringing endorsement of a mutual friend of us both, Eva Paterson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Society. Both of them are civil rights lawyers whom I greatly admire for their extraordinary accomplishments. Alexander’s bestseller has been hugely influential in opening eyes to the deplorable racial disparity in incarceration rates in the United States and in galvanizing ongoing efforts to effect meaningful reforms.

By Michelle Alexander,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The New Jim Crow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists motivated by Michelle Alexander's unforgettable argument that 'we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.'

Book cover of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Why did I love this book?

I met Bryan Stevenson through my daughter who took his class on the death penalty at NYU Law School. He has been called America’s Nelson Mandela for his work heading the Equal Justice Initiative. We interviewed him for our film project American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton. He is an inspiring speaker and indefatigable advocate for clients railroaded to death row – as both his book Just Mercy and the movie based on it reveal. Stevenson exhibits a similar passion for justice to that displayed by Movement lawyer Fay Stender, co-counsel with Charles Garry in the defense of Panther leader Huey Newton. Stevenson considers their accomplishments in that potentially explosive case a pivotal point in addressing systemic racism in American jury trials – though much work must still be done.   

By Bryan Stevenson,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Just Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



A #1 New York Times bestseller, this is a powerful, true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix America's broken justice system, as seen in the HBO documentary True Justice.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in every 15 people born there today is expected to go to prison. For black men this figure rises to one…

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