The best books for understanding Black history

Ian Zack Author Of Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest
By Ian Zack

Who am I?

Ian Zack is a New York-based journalist who has written two critically acclaimed biographies. The subjects of both his books—Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis and Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest—began their lives in the Jim Crow South before venturing North and making their voices heard.


I wrote...

Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

By Ian Zack,

Book cover of Odetta: A Life in Music and Protest

What is my book about?

Odetta is the stirring but never-before-told story of the folk singer and civil rights icon who inspired countless artists—from Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan to Janis Joplin and Carly Simon—and provided the soundtrack to the protest movements of the 1960s. The book traces Odetta’s life from early childhood in deeply segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to her breakout stardom in the late ’50s and her deep commitment—through her music, trailblazing Afro and work on behalf of the civil rights movement—to foster black pride and freedom.

The books I picked & why

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Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Book cover of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Why this book?

This groundbreaking book tells the history of America through the lens of anti-black racism and shines a light on the tragic duality of our national narrative: the codification of democracy and freedom and, at the same time, the willful subjugation across centuries of people of African descent. A fascinating and important read.


Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

By Douglas A. Blackmon,

Book cover of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Why this book?

Think slavery ended after the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? Think again. With painstaking detail, Blackmon recounts how white governments in the South maneuvered to re-enslave the black population after Reconstruction by taking advantage of a loophole in the amendment that made servitude acceptable “as punishment for a crime.” Black codes that criminalized “vagrancy” and a host of other vague offenses were used to funnel black people into a legal system that dispensed them into forced labor for local businesses, with little hope of seeing freedom again. These practices went on, in some cases, well into the 20th century.


Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

By Juan Williams,

Book cover of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

Why this book?

Before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, there was Thurgood Marshall. As a young lawyer and head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Marshall spearheaded the civil rights organization’s slow but steady legal course in challenging and defeating segregation in the courts. Risking his life to represent black plaintiffs in the South and slowly building the legal precedents that led to Brown vs. Board of Education, Marshall had a profound effect on the course of history. This excellent biography takes you there.


Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch,

Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Why this book?

This epic work (part 1 of a three-part trilogy) is more than just a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a history of the civil rights movement. It’s no less than a biblical narrative of heroes, villains and martyrs and the scores of ordinary people who sacrificed their bodies, livelihoods and lives to bring a measure of freedom to black Americans in the Jim Crow South.


The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

By Richard Rothstein,

Book cover of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Why this book?

This book shatters the myth that “de facto” segregation—in essence, people’s choices about where to live, rather than legal barriers—led to most of the segregation that still exists in the United States. Rothstein documents case after case of local, state, and federal government actions all over the country to bar black people from neighborhoods, developments, and from homeownership in general until all-too-recent times. He also lays out the many ramifications of these policies, including the exclusion of black Americans from opportunities to build wealth through the purchase of real estate and from the benefits that spring from living in the most prosperous and economically healthy places. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in race relations, African Americans, 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 race relations, African Americans, and civil rights.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Why We Can't Wait, An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America, and Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America if you like this list.