The best memoirs from the front lines of standing up to racism

Clara Silverstein Author Of White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation
By Clara Silverstein

Who am I?

As a white child bused to African American schools in Richmond, Virginia in the 1970s, I unwittingly stepped into a Civil Rights experiment that would shatter social norms and put me on a path to learning history not taught in textbooks. At first, I never expected to look back at this fraught time. Then I had children. The more I tried to tell them about my past, the more I wanted to understand the context. Why did we fall so short of America’s founding ideals? I have been reading and writing about American history ever since, completing a master’s degree and publishing books, essays, and poems.


I wrote...

White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation

By Clara Silverstein,

Book cover of White Girl: A Story of School Desegregation

What is my book about?

As a white student sent to predominantly Black public schools in Richmond, Virginia, Clara Silverstein pulls us into the upheaval of school desegregation. At school, she dealt daily with the unintended, unforeseen consequences of busing as she also negotiated the typical passions and concerns of young adulthood—all with little direction from her elders, who seemed just as bewildered by the changes around them. Inspired by her parents’ ideals, Silverstein remained in the public schools despite the emotional stakes. Her achingly honest story, woven with historical details, confronts us with powerful questions about race and the use of our schools to engineer social change.

The books I picked & why

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Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

By Melba Pattillo Beals,

Book cover of Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

Why this book?

One of nine Black students to integrate the high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, Beals faces threats to her life as well as constant cruelty not only from white people but also from members of her own community, who disapprove of her decision. Her book gives us an unflinching account of what it feels like to be inside the maelstrom. Education seems almost beside the point when she needs protection from the National Guard. Most resonant to me, Beals admits that being a warrior for social change is exhausting. “Sometimes,” she writes in her diary, “I just need to be a girl.”

Warriors Don't Cry: The Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High

By Melba Pattillo Beals,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Warriors Don't Cry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this essential autobiographical account by one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most powerful figures, Melba Pattillo Beals of the Little Rock Nine explores not only the oppressive force of racism, but the ability of young people to change ideas of race and identity.

In 1957, well before Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Melba Pattillo Beals and eight other teenagers became iconic symbols for the Civil Rights Movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow in the American South as they integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in the wake of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown…


Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

By Anne Moody,

Book cover of Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

Why this book?

This book brings home the racism that constricted a young Black woman’s life in rural Mississippi in the 1940s and 1950s. Smart and hardworking, Moody at first can only find menial jobs in white households. When she finally finds a way to go to college, she gets involved in the Civil Rights movement to push back against all the wrongs done to her. Her personal journey brings home the extent of reforms needed during Civil Rights – not just voting and seats on the bus, but systemic changes that would bring racial equality to all facets of life.

Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Classic Autobiography of Growing Up Poor and Black in the Rural South

By Anne Moody,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Coming of Age in Mississippi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The unforgettable memoir of a woman at the front lines of the civil rights movement—a harrowing account of black life in the rural South and a powerful affirmation of one person’s ability to affect change.
 
“Anne Moody’s autobiography is an eloquent, moving testimonial to her courage.”—Chicago Tribune
 
Born to a poor couple who were tenant farmers on a plantation in Mississippi, Anne Moody lived through some of the most dangerous days of the pre-civil rights era in the South. The week before she began high school came the news of Emmet Till’s lynching. Before then, she had “known the fear…


Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism

By Edward H. Peeples, Nancy MacLean (editor),

Book cover of Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism

Why this book?

Raised in a working-class white family in segregated Richmond in the 1930s and 1940s, Peeples grows up to challenge the racism around him. His transformation – how he learned to think critically and become a “traitor to the race” – is both unusual and compelling. He spends the rest of his life fighting for racial equality, first in the U.S. Navy and later at the university where he teaches. His perspective as someone who rejects his upbringing and energetically defends equal treatment for all races, as well as broader human rights, shows how much one individual can do to overcome the hate in his past and improve the world.

Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism

By Edward H. Peeples, Nancy MacLean (editor),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Scalawag tells the surprising story of a white working-class boy who became an unlikely civil rights activist. Born in 1935 in Richmond, where he was sent to segregated churches and schools, Ed Peeples was taught the ethos and lore of white supremacy by every adult in his young life. That message came with an equally cruel one-that, as the child of a wage-earning single mother, he was destined for failure.

But by age nineteen Peeples became what the whites in his world called a ""traitor to the race."" Pushed by a lone teacher to think critically, Peeples found his way…


Black Like Me

By John Howard Griffin,

Book cover of Black Like Me

Why this book?

Griffin’s account of his journey through the Deep South as a white man disguised to look Black, originally published in 1960, has stood the test of time because it reveals Griffin’s keen insight into a society riddled with racism. Griffin’s humanity shines through in his descriptions of his encounters with people of all races. He encounters ignorance, cruelty, and threats, but also kindness. His perspective from both sides of the color line reveals the desperate need for the change that would soon come during the Civil Rights movement.

Black Like Me

By John Howard Griffin,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

New edition with a foreword by Bernardine Evaristo


'A brutal record of segregated America ... essential reading' Guardian

'An anti-racist classic' Bernardine Evaristo

In the autumn of 1959, a white Texan journalist named John Howard Griffin travelled across the Deep South of the United States disguised as a working-class black man. Black Like Me is Griffin's own account of his journey.
Published in book form two years later it sold over five million copies, revealed to a white audience the daily experience of racism and became one of the best-known accounts of racial injustice in Jim Crow-era America. Embraced by…


When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

By Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele,

Book cover of When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

Why this book?

Growing up in a community of color where police harassment and brutality is the norm, Khan-Cullors learns early in life about racial inequality. This point is reinforced when her father and her mentally ill brother cycle in and out of prison. She clearly and poignantly tells us how her hurt and outrage about the treatment of her family members expands into activism and co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement. Her struggles to build a loving, supportive community around her as she challenges racial violence and unequal justice show her enormous personal and political challenges. The message, she writes, of “building power and ensuring healing” teaches me how important it is to balance the two.

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir

By Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked When They Call You a Terrorist as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement comes a poetic memoir and reflection on humanity. Necessary and timely, Patrisse Cullors' story asks us to remember that protest in the interest of the most vulnerable comes from love. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have been called terrorists, a threat to America. But in truth, they are loving women whose life experiences have led them to seek justice for those victimised by the powerful. In this meaningful, empowering account of survival, strength, and resilience, Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele seek to change the culture that declares…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, and Texas?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about African Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, and Texas.

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