The best books on women in the civil rights movement

Katherine Mellen Charron Author Of Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark
By Katherine Mellen Charron

Who am I?

Having studied the civil rights movement for over twenty years, I can attest that it is infinitely more complex, more nuanced, and more inspiring than how it has come to be remembered and celebrated. Students in my civil rights seminar always ask “Why did we never learn this in high school?!” They do so because they discover what becomes possible when ordinary people united around the goals of freedom and justice undertake extraordinary challenges. For those concerned about our contemporary historical moment, both the movement’s successes and shortcomings help explain how we got here. Yet they also suggest how we might best adapt the lessons from that era to our own as the struggle continues.

I wrote...

Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

By Katherine Mellen Charron,

Book cover of Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark

What is my book about?

Lifelong educator and civic activist Septima Clark (1898-1987) created the Citizenship Schools, an adult education program that equipped southern African Americans with practical literacy so they could register to vote, and political and economic literacy so that they could effectively access resources to improve their communities. More than 28,000 people participated in this training. My biography of Clark explores the activist educational culture of Black women teachers in the Jim Crow South, and how she adapted it in the mid-1950s to train a new generation of grassroots women. Because women predominated as both teachers and students, I argue, the Citizenship Schools functioned as a crucial space for them to hone their leadership skills and then decisively shape the civil rights agenda in their local communities.

The books I picked & why

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Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

By Barbara Ransby,

Book cover of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision

Why this book?

Ella Baker (1903-1986) was one of the most important organizers and intellectuals behind the Black freedom movements that transformed the United States in the last half of the 20th century. She is often best remembered for convening the 1960 conference of young sit-in activists that led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and then mentoring them as they continued their work across the South. Like Septima Clark, Baker embraced a philosophy of spreading leadership throughout a community and emphasized ordinary people’s capability to assume those responsibilities. Ransby’s magnificent biography supplies readers with an intimate portrait of the world that made Baker, the difficulties she encountered as a woman, and her pronounced influence in both the civil rights movement and American history.

For Freedom's Sake

By Chana Kai Lee,

Book cover of For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Why this book?

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) rose from obscurity as a sharecropper and plantation time-keeper to become a key player in the Mississippi movement. After joining the Student Non-Violent Committee in 1962, she helped with voter registration; arrested a year later, Hamer endured a horrible beating in a jail in Winona that left her with permanent injuries. In 1964, she helped organize Freedom Summer and co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that fall. Seeking to empower her rural African American neighbors, and drawing on long-standing traditions of self-determination, Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. Lee’s biography of this one incredible activist underscores the everyday racial and sexual violence—including forced sterilization—that accompanied life as a Black woman in the segregated South. It also demonstrates how they overcame it.

At the Dark End of the Street

By Danielle L. McGuire,

Book cover of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance--A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power

Why this book?

Using sexual violence—specifically white men’s rape of Black women—as its lens, McGuire’s work profoundly reorients our understanding of what motivated civil rights activists at the grassroots, especially women. The early chapters consider both the radical activism of Rosa Parks prior to 1955 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that emerged in the wake of her arrest. McGuire also examines how the 1959 rape of a young co-ed at Florida A&M University spurred student activism on campus and beyond. The last chapter covers the 1975 trial and exoneration of Joan Little, a poor Black woman from North Carolina accused of killing her white jailer as he attempted to sexually assault her. This book is a must-read for anyone who seeks deeper insight into the civil rights era.   

A Chance for Change

By Crystal R. Sanders,

Book cover of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle

Why this book?

Sanders offers a most compelling portrait of how working-class Black women harnessed civil rights activism to education and the War on Poverty. In 1965, the Child Development Group of Mississippi became one of the earliest Head Start programs in the nation. Sanders focuses on how activists deployed it to enhance educational opportunities for Black children and to secure economic independence from white employers for Black women. She also tracks how the state’s white supremacist political leaders and those in Washington D.C. undermined this successful program. In so doing, Sanders demonstrates the precariousness of civil rights victories, especially when activists sought economic justice that required fundamentally remaking the structure of U.S. society.  

Hands on the Freedom Plow

By Faith S. Holsaert (editor), Martha Prescod Norman Noonan (editor), Judy Richardson (editor), Betty Garman Robinson (editor), Jean Smith Young (editor), Dorothy M. Zellner (editor)

Book cover of Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

Why this book?

The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) represented the youthful vanguard of the civil rights movement, those high school and college students who dared to envision a different future and risked their lives daily to make it a reality. In this powerful collection of edited oral histories, fifty-two female SNCC veterans reflect on their experiences. Readers gain a sense of what it felt like to participate in the movement across many distinct locations as well as their perspectives on its most iconic moments and the internal debates among movement activists and organizations. Overall, these testimonies enrich our awareness of women’s civil rights engagement and the subsequent impact it had on their lives.  

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in civil rights, Mississippi, and the Civil Rights Movement?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about civil rights, Mississippi, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Civil Rights Explore 91 books about civil rights
Mississippi Explore 36 books about Mississippi
The Civil Rights Movement Explore 55 books about the Civil Rights Movement

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, and An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America if you like this list.