The best books on protest movements

Who am I?

I’m the author of five books on subjects ranging from comedy and music to sports and pants (specifically, blue jeans). I’m a longtime Boston Globe contributor, a former San Francisco Chronicle staff critic, and a onetime editor for Rolling Stone. I help develop podcasts and other programming for Sirius and Pandora. I teach in the Journalism department at Emerson College, and I am the Program Director for the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival and the co-founder of Lit Crawl Boston.

I wrote...

Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

By James Sullivan,

Book cover of Which Side Are You On?: 20th Century American History in 100 Protest Songs

What is my book about?

“Protest” music is largely perceived as an unsubtle art form, a topical brand of songwriting that preaches to the converted. But popular music of all types has long given listeners food for thought. Fifty years before Vietnam, before the United States entered World War I, some of the most popular sheet music in the country featured anti-war tunes. The labor movement of the early decades of the century was fueled by its communal “songbook.” The Civil Rights movement was soundtracked not just by the gorgeous melodies of “Strange Fruit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” but hundreds of other gospel-tinged ballads and blues.

My book is an anecdotal history of the progressive movements that have shaped the growth of the United States and the songs of all genres that have accompanied and defined them.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Why did I love this book?

The author is perhaps best known as an instigator of the “microhistory” field of study (of which I’m an avid fan and sometime practitioner). But he’s also a chronicler of protest, including one book on the worldwide demonstrations of 1968 and another, Ready for a Brand New Beat, that notes the civil rights impact of Martha and the Vandellas’ "Dancing in the Street". I’ve often felt that I was born late, just missing so many of the cultural convulsions that have informed my writing. With Non-Violence (2006) Kurlansky gives us a historical foundation for the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.

By Mark Kurlansky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The conventional history of nations, even continents, is a history of warfare. According to this view, all the important ideas and significant changes of humankind were put forward in an effort to win one violent bloody conflict or another. This approach to history is only one of many examples of how societies promote warfare and glorify violence. But there have always been a few who have refused to fight. Governments have long regarded this minority as a danger to society and have imprisoned and abused them and encouraged their persecution. This was true of those who refused Europe's wars, who…

Book cover of Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power

Why did I love this book?

I’m a native and resident of the Northeast, but I lived for 10 years in San Francisco. During our time there, I was a little obsessed with the legacy of Mario Savio, the unassuming University of Cal-Berkeley student of the 1960s who helped lead the campus Free Speech Movement. His extemporaneous speech in protest of the school’s collaboration with the “military-industrial complex” – “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part!” – remains revolutionary. In Subversives (2012), investigative journalist Seth Rosenfeld tells a sweeping story of the FSM, its origins, and its aftermath.

By Seth Rosenfeld,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Subversives traces the FBI's secret involvement with three iconic figures at Berkeley during the 1960s: the ambitious neophyte politician Ronald Reagan, the fierce but fragile radical Mario Savio, and the liberal university president Clark Kerr. Through these converging narratives, the award-winning investigative reporter Seth Rosenfeld tells a dramatic and disturbing story of FBI surveillance, illegal break-ins, infiltration, planted news stories, poison-pen letters, and secret detention lists. He reveals how the FBI's covert operations—led by Reagan's friend J. Edgar Hoover—helped ignite an era of protest, undermine the Democrats, and benefit Reagan personally and politically. At the same time, he vividly evokes…

Book cover of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Why did I love this book?

Now teaching at UT Austin after founding the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, Joseph recently wrote a twin biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Sword and the Shield. His first published book, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour (2006), was a thriller; it helped shift the prevailing narrative of the core years of the Civil Rights era toward the essential legacies of Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and other Black “radicals” whose contributions were too long willfully neglected.

By Peniel E. Joseph,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1966, a group of black activists, including Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton, turned their backs on Martin Luther King's pacifism in order to build on the legacy of Malcolm X. The result? The Black Power movement, a radical new approach to the fight for equality. Joseph traces the history of the men and women of the movement - many famous and infamous, some forgotten. Drawing on original archival research and more than 60 original oral histories, this narrative history vividly reports the way in which Black Power redefined black identity in the USA.

Book cover of The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

Why did I love this book?

I devoured this book on the recommendation of my friend Otis Gibbs, a songwriter with a particular interest in the great tradition of songs of, by, and for the working class. “Educate – Agitate – Organize,” reads the Joe Hill mural painted on the side of a rare books store in Salt Lake City, where the Wobbly songwriter was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1915. In The Man Who Never Died (2011), journalist William M. Adler contextualizes the vital importance of songs like Hill’s to the union movement, and he uncovers new details about the activist’s controversial conviction.

By William M. Adler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Man Who Never Died as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1914, Joe Hill, the prolific songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies), was convicted of murder in Utah and sentenced to death by firing squad, igniting international controversy. In the first major biography of the radical historical icon, William M. Adler explores an extraordinary life and presents persuasive evidence of Hill's innocence. Hill would become organized labor's most venerated martyr, and a hero to folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. His story shines a beacon on the early-twentieth-century American experience and exposes the roots of issues critical to the twenty-first…

Book cover of Dissent: The History of an American Idea

Why did I love this book?

There are two kinds of patriots: those who insist that allegiance to flag and country means keeping things the way they are, and those who want their country to live up to its ideals and do better by all its citizens. (Which side are you on?) In Dissent (2015), history professor Ralph Young shows how the foundational protest of the American Revolution lives on in the Occupy demonstrators and Women’s Marchers, Black Lives Matter groups, and climate change activists.

By Ralph Young,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Finalist, 2016 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award
One of Bustle's Books For Your Civil Disobedience Reading List
Examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States, emphasizing the way Americans responded to injustices
Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the working class, nonviolence, and civil rights?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the working class, nonviolence, and civil rights.

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