The best memoirs of the civil rights movement

Paul Kendrick Author Of Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election
By Paul Kendrick

Who am I?

My father and I have written three books of narrative history. We tell stories from the American past that have a theme of interracial collaboration. Not sentimentally, but so that in a clear-eyed way, we can learn from moments in our history that may offer us hopeful ways forward. Growing up, I was shaped by narrative history techniques such as Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality by Richard Kluger and Taylor Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy. For this list, I wanted to share five favorite civil rights movement memoirs.


I wrote...

Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election

By Stephen Kendrick, Paul Kendrick,

Book cover of Nine Days: The Race to Save Martin Luther King Jr.'s Life and Win the 1960 Election

What is my book about?

Nine Days tells the story of a young Martin Luther King Jr.’s courageous first overnight imprisonment with Atlanta sit-in students and how it clarified the path of his activism to change a nation. The book also traces how an interracial team of civil rights advisors for the Kennedy campaign went rogue for Dr. King and shifted the Black vote to narrowly elect Kennedy over Nixon—a decisive moment in shaping the political parties we have today.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

By John Lewis, Michael D'Orso,

Book cover of Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

Why this book?

There is a spiritual quality in Lewis’ beautiful writing as he remembers a historic life. Lewis’ testament is of his journey from an Alabama farm to meeting a young Dr. King to becoming a leader in the Nashville sit-in movements and SNCC, all the way to the White House after speaking at the March on Washington. This book should be read forever.


An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

By Andrew Young,

Book cover of An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America

Why this book?

Few reflect on Dr. King more insightfully than Young, from strategy sessions to reflective late-night talks with Dr. King. His memories from campaigns like Birmingham are invaluable. There is both humor and great depth in the tale of Young’s life, from theological school and parish ministry to being at the center of the civil rights movement. 


Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy

By Coretta Scott King, Barbara Reynolds,

Book cover of Coretta: My Life, My Love, My Legacy

Why this book?

An update to her earlier and equally fascinating, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., this chronicle helps readers understand that Coretta was not only Dr. King’s wife, but was a passionate civil rights activist and a partner to Dr. King in the movement. She knew racism in its most harrowing forms from her Alabama childhood and her fire for social justice developed in college before she met Dr. King. The reminiscences of their courtship in Boston and then the bus boycott in Montgomery after they decided to move back to the South to change their native region stick with a reader.


My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance

By Harry Belafonte, Michael Shnayerson,

Book cover of My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance

Why this book?

One of the most candid memoirs of the era, Belafonte was key to the movement at consequential moments like Selma. From his early adulthood as a socialist in New York City to being a confidant to a Dr. King who was searching for how to change America, Belafonte is a great storyteller.


Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir

By Vernon Jordan Jr., Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir

Why this book?

Like Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan was another generous, legendary person who I treasured interviewing for Nine Days. Sadly, he passed away this year, but left us a captivating account of his life, from childhood in Georgia to being a young lawyer under Donald Hollowell facing life and death stakes to surviving an assassination attempt. Jordan was a masterful orchestrator of change who appreciated his mentors and taught us all through this book.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in civil rights, the Civil Rights Movement, and African Americans?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about civil rights, the Civil Rights Movement, and African Americans.

Civil Rights Explore 91 books about civil rights
The Civil Rights Movement Explore 55 books about the Civil Rights Movement
African Americans Explore 397 books about African Americans

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Why We Can't Wait, and I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle if you like this list.