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.

The books I picked & why

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For Us, the Living

By Myrlie Evers Williams, William Peters,

Book cover of For Us, the Living

Why 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.

The Civil War: An Illustrated History

By Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, Ken Burns

Book cover of The Civil War: An Illustrated History

Why 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.

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

By William Doyle,

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

Why 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.

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

By Juan Williams,

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

Why 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.

The South Strikes Back

By Hodding Carter,

Book cover of The South Strikes Back

Why 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.  

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