The best books on movements for racial and economic justice in the United States

Who am I?

Growing up middle-class, white, progressive, and repeatedly exposed to the mediated crises and movements of the Sixties left me with a lifelong challenge of making sense of the American dilemma. My road was long and winding–a year in Barcelona as Spain struggled to emerge from autocracy; years organizing for the nuclear freeze and against apartheid; study under academics puzzling through the possibilities of nonviolent and democratic politics. My efforts culminated in the publication of a volume that won the Organization of American Historians Liberty Legacy Award, for the “best book by a historian on the civil rights struggle from the beginnings of the nation to the present.”


I wrote...

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

By Thomas F. Jackson,

Book cover of From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice

What is my book about?

When I joined the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University in the 1980s, I knew that most Americans remained ignorant of King’s sharp challenges to the Vietnam War, to urban racial segregation, and to the halfhearted federal War on Poverty. What escaped me was how much King's nonviolent opposition to racism, militarism, and economic injustice had deep historic and communal roots, in the struggles of Atlanta’s Black community with the Great Depression and his extended encounter with the Christian Social Gospel. I learned that the southern civil rights movement was also a movement for economic and political empowerment. We can learn much from his understanding of America’s unfulfilled dreams for "a radical redistribution of political and economic power" in American cities, the nation, and the world.

The books I picked & why

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Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries,

Book cover of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt

Why this book?

Poor Black farmers and sharecroppers lined the route of Martin Luther King’s famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, an epic protest that drew thousands of white supporters and led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act. Hasan Jeffries beautifully recaptures these local people’s struggle for political power and economic self-determination. This book made plain to me as has no other just why and where Black Power was the only option. Local people creatively won support from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity and challenged Lowndes County’s courthouse cliques and agricultural committees, powerful agencies set up of, by, and for wealthy white planters under New Deal federal crop subsidy programs. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was the original Black Panther Party that later inspired legions of local northern activists.


Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

By Annelise Orleck,

Book cover of Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty

Why this book?

Even some of my most historically aware students are often stunned to learn that the largest poor people’s organization of the 1960s and 1970s was the National Welfare Rights Organization. This is the story of the Black mothers who built one of NWRO’s most dynamic and creative local chapters. Through its dramatic, inspiring characters, this book made it plain to me just how much gender justice is indivisible from racial and economic justice. They staged massive protests in the Las Vegas strip with an amazing cast of allies. Then they moved on, and leveraged resources from far and wide to build "Operation Life," a social service, healthcare, and job training agency that they ran themselves.


A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition

By George Lipsitz,

Book cover of A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition

Why this book?

All my selections capture unheralded activists undertaking the “social learning” at the core of movement building. Inevitably, a movement against one injustice will uncover larger and denser fabrics of inequality and disempowerment. Lipsitz and Perry collaborated in producing an incredible synthesis of personal biography and broad social and historical analysis. This book opened my eyes to the forgotten history of a northern freedom movement that challenged entrenched and enduring structures of big city inequality. Lipsitz follows Perry from a campaign to open up jobs for St. Louis bank tellers in 1963, to an “unviolent” campaign organizing Louisiana timber workers for voting rights and labor rights in 1965. Perry's subsequent efforts as a St. Louis war on poverty housing coordinator were educations in themselves: most memorably, he organized rent strikes and coordinated an unprecedented campaign to remedy the devastating effects of lead paint poisoning on children.


Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign

By Michael K. Honey,

Book cover of Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign

Why this book?

When I read this book, I knew plenty about Martin Luther King’s ties to the labor movement. What I did not knowand what it took Honey twenty years to piece together—was an understanding of the 1,200 workers whose desperate straits and courageous creative nonviolence called King to Memphis in 1968. Honey uncovers the small triumphs hidden from view if we only look at the large tragedy of King’s assassination. Sanitation workers fought for safer working conditions, adequate wages, and trade union recognition from a city administration that literally treated them like garbage. A labor dispute transformed into a nonviolent community revolt. I remain in awe of the book’s richly textured portraits, among them Reverend Ralph Jackson, a peaceful protester brutalized by police, who forged a "campaign to end police brutality and improve housing, jobs, wages, and education across the city."


The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives

By Bryant Simon,

Book cover of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives

Why this book?

Though this book is not a study of movement organizing, it shows just how necessary the task of political and economic empowerment remains, if people are to escape cycles of low wages, dangerous work, persistent racism, and public neglect. This book inspired me, and even more so my students, for the connections it uncovered in a declining North Carolina railroad town: a growing, fiercely competitive, and radically unsafe poultry processing industry; persistent neighborhood segregation and racial disrespect, despite the widespread integration of Blacks and women into workplaces; the exclusion of Blacks and poor whites from local political power; the growth of mother-only and time-pressed poor families increasingly reliant on low wages and cheap food to get by. These are only a few of the topics Simon compressed into his lucid and readable portrait of the tragedy of chicken and the unfinished business of our time.


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