The best books to teach about the civil rights movement

Who am I?

I grew up in the American South during the Civil Rights Movement. The movement was nearly constant conversation, approached with cautious optimism, in my household. Years later, I met my wife, whose family lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and participated in various ways in the movement in that city. Soon after I began to study and write about the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Birmingham movement. I’ve published two books of fiction that reflect on the Movement and I’ve taught college courses and given many lectures in the States and abroad about literature and film set during the Civil Rights Movement.


I wrote...

Bombingham

By Anthony Grooms,

Book cover of Bombingham

What is my book about?

With wry humor and haunting descriptions, this is a portrait of the wonder and terror of childhood during a time when ordinary citizens risked their lives to change America. Now a soldier in the Vietnam War, Walter Burke tells the story of his family’s fight against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1963 Children’s March and his struggle to discover a faith that gives meaning to it all.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Silver Rights

Anthony Grooms Why did I love this book?

When I was twelve, my father said to me, “Stick and stones might break your bones, but words will never hurt you. You are going to a white school.” It was with those words that I became a part of a complicated integration plan called “Freedom of Choice.” Connie Curry, one of the first white members of SNCC, the student-run civil rights activist group, writes beautifully of the Carter family as they integrate the schools of Sunflower County, Mississippi. The book emphasizes that access to education was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement. The Carter children learned, as I did, that words can both hurt and heal.

By Constance Curry, Marian Wright Edelman (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE CAN GIVE OUR CHILDREN IS AN EDUCATION.” —Mae Bertha Carter
 
In 1965, the Carters, an African American sharecropping family with thirteen children, took public officials at their word when they were offered “Freedom of Choice” to send their children to any school they wished, and so began their unforeseen struggle to desegregate the schools of Sunflower County, Mississippi. In this true account from the front lines of the civil rights movement, four generations of the Carter family speak to author and civil rights activist Constance Curry, who lived this story alongside the family—a story of…


Book cover of Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers

Anthony Grooms Why did I love this book?

Walker’s poems channel the voices of Myrlie Evers, widow of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and of Byron De La Beckwith, Medgar’s assassin. The poems create warm, sometimes groovy narratives that evoke the music and voices of my childhood, thus humanizing the historical figures while still making palpable their fear, hatred, and defiance.

By Frank X Walker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Around the void left by the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963, the poems in this collection speak, unleashing the strong emotions both before and after the moment of assassination. Poems take on the voices of Evers's widow, Myrlie; his brother, Charles; his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith; and each of De La Beckwith's two wives. Except for the book's title, ""Turn me loose,"" which were his final words, Evers remains in this collection silent. Yet the poems accumulate facets of the love and hate with which others saw this man, unghosting him in a way that only imagination makes…


Book cover of Why We Can't Wait

Anthony Grooms Why did I love this book?

So many people quote Dr. King’s words without ever having read them in context. This book which not only chronicles the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, but articulates the reasons for the Civil Rights Movement, helped me to reframe King, understanding him both as a man of faith and a political radical. It contains “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a masterpiece of American writing.

By Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Why We Can't Wait as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'He changed the course of history' Barack Obama

'Lightning makes no sound until it strikes'

This is the momentous story of the Civil Rights movement, told by one of its most powerful and eloquent voices. Here Martin Luther King, Jr. recounts the pivotal events in the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that propelled his non-violent campaign for racial justice from a movement of lunch counter sit-ins and prayer meetings to a phenomenon that 'rocked the richest, most powerful nation to its foundations'.

As inspiring and resonant as it was upon publication, Why We Can't Wait is both a unique…


Book cover of Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement: An Anthology

Anthony Grooms Why did I love this book?

This is the authoritative anthology of short stories that reflect on the Civil Rights Movement. Arranged in sections that highlight aspects of the movement, the stories by some of America’s best fiction writers, range from the thought-proving to the gut-wrenching. Among my favorites are Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” and James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man.”

By Margaret Earley Whitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During the civil rights era, masses of people marched in the streets, boycotted stores, and registered to vote. Others challenged racism in ways more solitary but no less life changing. These twenty-three stories give a voice to the nameless, ordinary citizens without whom the movement would have failed. From bloody melees at public lunch counters to anxious musings at the family dinner table, the diverse experiences depicted in this anthology make the civil rights movement as real and immediate as the best histories and memoirs. Each story focuses on a particular, sometimes private, moment in the historic struggle for social…


Book cover of We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March

Anthony Grooms Why did I love this book?

I wanted a good middle-grade book to introduce my son to the Birmingham Children’s March.   Doing so was important to me since his mother grew up in Birmingham, a little girl in 1963.  Levinson’s book features the stories of four children, one who was my wife’s schoolmate, who marched and were fire-hosed. With historical photographs and interviews, the book is an inviting and moving introduction for middle-graders to the why and how of the Movement and the bravery of the youngest activists.

By Cynthia Levinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We've Got a Job as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

The inspiring story of the 1963 Birmingham Children's March as seen through the eyes of four young people at the center of the action.

The 1963 Birmingham Children's March was a turning point in American civil rights history. Black Americans had had enough of segregation and police brutality, but with their lives and jobs at stake, most adults were hesitant to protest the city's racist culture. So the fight for civil rights lay in the hands of children like Audrey Hendricks, Wash Booker, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter.

We've Got a Job tells the little-known story of the four thousand…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in race relations, civil rights, and the Civil Rights Movement?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about race relations, civil rights, and the Civil Rights Movement.

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