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.

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).

Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

By Mark Kurlansky,

Book cover of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea

Why 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.


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

By Seth Rosenfeld,

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

Why 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.

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

By Peniel E. Joseph,

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

Why 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.

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

By William M. Adler,

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

Why 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.

Dissent: The History of an American Idea

By Ralph Young,

Book cover of Dissent: The History of an American Idea

Why 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.

5 book lists we think you will like!

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

5,215 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.

The Working Class Explore 32 books about the working class
Nonviolence Explore 12 books about nonviolence
Civil Rights Explore 91 books about civil rights

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Why We Can't Wait, Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction, and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America if you like this list.