The best books on women in the civil rights movement

Why am I passionate about this?

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...

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Katherine Mellen Charron Why did I love 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.

By Barbara Ransby,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most important African American leaders of the twentieth century and perhaps the most influential woman in the civil rights movement, Ella Baker (1903-1986) was an activist whose remarkable career spanned fifty years and touched thousands of lives. In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker's long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across…


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

Katherine Mellen Charron Why did I love 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.

By Chana Kai Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked For Freedom's Sake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The youngest of twenty children of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer witnessed throughout her childhood the white cruelty, political exclusion, and relentless economic exploitation that defined African American existence in the Delta.

In this intimate biography, Chana Kai Lee documents Hamer's lifelong crusade to empower the poor through collective action, her rise to national prominence as a civil rights activist, and the personal costs of her ongoing struggle to win a political voice and economic self-sufficiency for blacks in the segregated South. Lee looks at Hamer's early work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee…


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

Katherine Mellen Charron Why did I love 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.   

By Danielle L. McGuire,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked At the Dark End of the Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Here is the courageous, groundbreaking story of Rosa Parks and Recy Taylor—a story that reinterprets the history of America's civil rights movement in terms of the sexual violence committed against Black women by white men.

"An important step to finally facing the terrible legacies of race and gender in this country.” —The Washington Post

Rosa Parks was often described as a sweet and reticent elderly woman whose tired feet caused her to defy segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and whose supposedly solitary, spontaneous act sparked the 1955 bus boycott that gave birth to the civil rights movement. The truth of…


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

Katherine Mellen Charron Why did I love 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.  

By Crystal R. Sanders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Chance for Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this innovative study, Crystal Sanders explores how working-class black women, in collaboration with the federal government, created the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) in 1965, a Head Start program that not only gave poor black children access to early childhood education but also provided black women with greater opportunities for political activism during a crucial time in the unfolding of the civil rights movement. Women who had previously worked as domestics and sharecroppers secured jobs through CDGM as teachers and support staff and earned higher wages. The availability of jobs independent of the local white power structure afforded…


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

Katherine Mellen Charron Why did I love 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.  

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)

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Hands on the Freedom Plow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Hands on the Freedom Plow, fifty-two women--northern and southern, young and old, urban and rural, black, white, and Latina--share their courageous personal stories of working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. The testimonies gathered here present a sweeping personal history of SNCC: early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, and freedom rides; the 1963 March on Washington, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the movements in Alabama and Maryland; and Black Power and antiwar activism. Since the women spent time in the Deep South, many also describe risking their lives through beatings…


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Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

Four years old and homeless, William Walters boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains in 1930 and embarked on an astonishing quest through nine decades of U.S. and world history.

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From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—many times they were nightmares.

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

11,000+ 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.

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