The best lesser-known Civil Rights books

Derek R. King Author Of The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard
By Derek R. King

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s for many years. Keen to understand not just events in that timeframe, I also needed to understand how those entrenched and diametrically opposed positions had occurred. What triggered the responses of water cannon, German shepherd dogs, and Billy clubs to seemingly peaceful students marching or seated in a particular section of a café? Over a period of seventeen years, I amassed a private collection of books, magazines, newspapers, over two hundred in all, along with material from various state-run Departments of Archives of History, further amplifying my fascination and providing fodder for my book.

I wrote...

The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

By Derek R. King,

Book cover of The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

What is my book about?

With many recognizable names from the American civil rights movement, a few are overlooked by history. The award-winning biography is about the forgotten history of Clyde Kennard, a man who used his desire for education to challenge institutionalized segregation in Mississippi after being denied admission. 

For many, Kennard’s attempt to enroll at Mississippi State College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) is viewed as the first serious attempt to integrate any public school at the college or higher level in Mississippi. This book tells the compelling story of his attempt to enter MSC, placed in the context of key events in the civil rights movement. Kennard’s story is an uplifting and inspiring example of perseverance, and committed determination to right wrongs.

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The books I picked & why

For Us, the Living

By Myrlie Evers Williams, William Peters,

Book cover of For Us, the Living

Why did I love this book?

This was the book, which truly drew me into the world of the Civil Rights struggle in America, a personalized account by Myrlie Ever’s of her life (and that of their children), with her civil rights worker husband and father, until his untimely assassination in 1963.

It is a very personal and moving account of their family life, their passion, and pursuit of the American Dream of equal rights for their family, set against the backdrop of a deeply segregated social order of their time in the Deep South. 

I found this book compelling, enlightening, and touching.

By Myrlie Evers Williams, William Peters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For Us, the Living as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1967, when this brave book was first published, Myrlie Evers said, ""Somewhere in Mississippi lives the man who murdered my husband.""Medgar Evers died in a horrifying act of political violence. Among both blacks and whites the killing of this Mississippi civil rights leader intensified the menacing moods of unrest and discontent generated during the civil rights era. His death seemed to usher in a succession of political shootings--Evers, then John Kennedy, then Martin Luther King, Jr., then Robert Kennedy.

At thirty-seven while field secretary for the NAACP, Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi, during the summer of 1963.…

The Civil War: An Illustrated History

By Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, Ken Burns

Book cover of The Civil War: An Illustrated History

Why did I love this book?

It may seem odd to have a Civil War book on a Civil Rights book recommendation list, but many of the issues faced by the Civil Rights movement, in many respects, were unfinished business from the times preceding and post the Civil War. 

What this book does, aside from touching on the various battles, is to touch on the social, political, and economic scenarios in both the north and south prior to the War, during the War, and afterward during the reconstruction period.

Worth bearing in mind in some cases survivors of the Civil War period were only a couple of generations removed from the conflict at the time of the Civil Rights movement. Aside from being a great read, this book provides an invaluable resource of information.

By Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, Ken Burns

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"The Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things.... It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads: the suffering, the enormous tragedy of the whole thing."- Shelby Foote, from The Civil War

  When the illustrated edition of The Civil War was first published, The New York Time hailed it as "a treasure for the eye and mind." Now Geoffrey Ward's magisterial work of history is available in a text-only edition that interweaves the author's narrative with the voices of the…

Book cover of An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962

Why did I love this book?

While this is a non-fiction book, with the story that unfolds, you could be forgiven for believing it’s a work of fiction. That a US president, would send tens of thousands of US Army personnel into a state to quell an insurrection in the 20th Century is barely believable, but this is indeed what happened.

The remarkable book sets out the events which surrounded the heated and impassioned debate which evolved around the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, known as Ole Miss. 

The facts alone make this a compelling read, written in a journalist styling, making the read fast-paced and highly informative.

By William Doyle,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In 1961, a black veteran named James Meredith applied for admission to the University of Mississippi — and launched a legal revolt against white supremacy in the most segregated state in America. Meredith’s challenge ultimately triggered what Time magazine called “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War,” a crisis that on September 30, 1962, exploded into a chaotic battle between thousands of white civilians and a small corps of federal marshals. To crush the insurrection, President John F. Kennedy ordered a lightning invasion of Mississippi by over 20,000 U.S. combat infantry, paratroopers, military police, and…

Book cover of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965

Why did I love this book?

Eyes on The Prize, sets out the main events and other occurrences across America, in the Civil Rights period from 1954 to 1965. While a companion book to the PBS documentary of the same name, the book serves as an introduction, intriguing read, and springboard for further research on specific events or areas of particular interest.

The time-lined events ‘roadmaps’ are particularly helpful at providing context for the events covered and demonstrate the evolving nature of each event explored. These along with segments of oral histories and interviews conducted for the documentary provide additional interest.

By Juan Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Eyes on the Prize as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 30th-anniversary edition of Juan Williams's celebrated account of the tumultuous early years of the civil rights movement

From the Montgomery bus boycott to the Little Rock Nine to the Selma-Montgomery march, thousands of ordinary people who participated in the American civil rights movement; their stories are told in Eyes on the Prize. From leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., to lesser-known figures such as Barbara Rose John and Jim Zwerg, each man and woman made the decision that somethinghad to be done to stop discrimination. These moving accounts and pictures of the first decade of the civil rights…

The South Strikes Back

By Hodding Carter,

Book cover of The South Strikes Back

Why did I love this book?

While many books are written after the event or events contained in the book, this book is contemporary to the events it relates to. In this case the birth and growth of the Citizens Councils in the Deep South in the mid-1950s. 

The author and then managing editor of the Greenville Democratic Times sets out, in a clear and readily understood way, the mood of the day among the white-collar political and business classes in the months and years immediately following the Brown v Board of Education decision.

It’s a worthy read and a touchstone of the rising political temperatures of those times.  

By Hodding Carter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In The South Strikes Back, Hodding Carter III describes the birth of the white Citizens' Council in the Mississippi Delta and its spread throughout the South. Carter begins with a brief historical overview and traces the formation of the Council, its treatment of African Americans, and its impact on white communities, concluding with an analysis of the Council's future in Mississippi.

Through economic boycott, social pressure, and political influence, the Citizens' Council was able to subdue its opponents and dominate the communities in which it operated. Carter considers trends working against the Council-the federal government's efforts to improve voting rights…

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