The best Brown v. Board of Education books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about Brown v. Board of Education and why they recommend each book.

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The Strange Career of Jim Crow

By C. Vann Woodward,

Book cover of The Strange Career of Jim Crow

This succinct and persuasive study of the profound failure to integrate the freed slave population in the U.S. after 1865 is a rare example of a scholarly work’s direct influence on governments and the process of reform.  The author’s premise and analysis is that popular and local official antipathy to emancipation led to enforced, violent segregation (Jim Crow) that was constitutionally affirmed in the 1896 Plessy case.  The book’s three editions follow the history of civil rights reform from the 1950s to the 1970s and the Supreme Court’s gradual dismantling of the Plessy rule. While Jim Crow law has been overturned, versions of real-life Jim Crow conditions remain.


Who am I?

I taught American, European, and World History at the University of British Columbia for over 30 years. I was constantly reminded of the dynamics and consequences of slavery and how a history of black America should be more prevalent in understanding the development of American culture, institutions, and identity over time. In writing two books on colonial America and the American Revolution, the roots of America’s racial divide became clearer and the logic of permanence seemed irresistible. My Shaping the New World was inspired by a course I taught for years on slavery in the Americas. Compiling the bibliography and writing the chapters on slave women and families helped to refine my understanding of the “peculiar institution” in all its both common and varied characteristics throughout the Americas.


I wrote...

Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

By Eric Nellis,

Book cover of Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888

What is my book about?

Between 1500 and the middle of the nineteenth century, some 12.5 million slaves were sent as bonded labour from Africa to the European settlements in the Americas. Shaping the New World introduces students to the origins, growth, and consolidation of African slavery in the Americas and race-based slavery's impact on the economic, social, and cultural development of the New World.

While the book explores the idea of the African slave as a tool in the formation of new American societies, it also acknowledges the culture, humanity, and importance of the slave as a person and highlights the role of women in slave societies.

Simple Justice

By Richard Kluger,

Book cover of Simple Justice: The History of Brown V. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality

How do you get the Supreme Court to revisit its 1896 ruling that upheld Jim Crow laws as “separate but equal”? That was the question that divided officials in the NAACP, and Kluger’s book shows them coalescing around a plan that aims first at racist admissions policies in professional and graduate institutions before turning to the even more politically sensitive matter of segregated public schools. To pursue this incremental strategy, civil-rights activists developed Howard University’s law school with the goal of training black lawyers to mount desegregation cases. The most prominent of them — the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice himself — ended up arguing the Brown v. Board of Education appeal that in 1954 led the court to rule the separate-but-equal doctrine was unconstitutional.

Who am I?

Sasha Issenberg has been a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and editor, and teaches in the political science department at UCLA. He is the author of four books, on topics as varied as the global sushi business, medical tourism, and the science of political campaigns. The most recent tackles his most sweeping subject yet: the long and unlikely campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States. One of his favorite discoveries in the decade he spent researching the book was that a movement that ended with a landmark Supreme Court decision had been catalyzed by a Honolulu activist’s public-relations stunt sprawling out of control twenty-five years earlier.


I wrote...

The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

By Sasha Issenberg,

Book cover of The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

What is my book about?

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional, making same-sex unions legal throughout the United States. But the road to victory was much longer than many know. The Engagement traces the emergence of same-sex marriage as a political issue to 1990 in Honolulu, where a petty power struggle for control of a Honolulu gay-pride planning committee inadvertently helped introduce it to the state’s courts, and religious conservatives elevated it to the national stage with the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

The Engagement follows the coast-to-coast conflict through courtrooms and war rooms, bedrooms, and boardrooms, to shed light on every aspect of a political and legal struggle that divided Americans like few other issues have. It adds up to a secret history of the modern culture wars that O: The Oprah Magazine called “Part Grisham-esque legal thriller, part Sorkin-esque political drama, and part Maddow-esque historical yarn.”

Democracy in Chains

By Nancy MacLean,

Book cover of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America

This is a brilliant book by a professor of history holding an endowed chair at Duke University, a scholar who took a year off from her academic duties to tour the country, giving talks about this book. It is the other book that has most affected me since the publication of my last book, After Capitalism. It’s a very readable scholarly study, not explicitly focused on climate change, but which explains more compellingly than any other book I’ve read, as to why, given what we know about the causes of, and solutions to, climate change, we are not doing what needs to be done. This book goes well beyond my own long-held belief that we don’t really live in a democracy, focusing on specific elements I’d never thought about, but which are causally implicated in so much of the systemic disfunction that we observe today in our political and economic…


Who am I?

I have a certain degree of scientific expertise deriving from the education leading to my Ph.D. in mathematics and a deep interest in ethical issues, which led to my pursuing a second Ph.D. in philosophy. I am passionate about the issue of climate change, because (among other reasons) I have four grandchildren who will be living in the new world that is being created now. As I often said to my students during my last few years of teaching, “You are living at the time when the most momentous event in human history is unfolding. Historians of the future—if there are any remaining—will write extensively about this period, about what happened and why, about what those of us alive today did or did not do.”


I wrote...

After Capitalism

By David Schweickart,

Book cover of After Capitalism

What is my book about?

After Capitalism has offered students and political activists alike a coherent vision of a viable and desirable alternative to capitalism. David Schweickart calls this system Economic Democracy, a successor-system to capitalism which preserves the efficiency strengths of a market economy while extending democracy to the workplace and to the structures of investment finance. In the second edition, Schweickart recognizes that increased globalization of companies has created greater than ever interdependent economies and the debate about the desirability of entrepreneurship is escalating. The new edition includes a new preface, completely updated data, reorganized chapters, and new sections on the economic instability of capitalism, the current economic crisis, and China. Drawing on both theoretical and empirical research, Schweickart shows how and why this model is efficient, dynamic, and applicable in the world today.

Thurgood Marshall

By Juan Williams,

Book cover of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary

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.


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.

Unceasing Militant

By Alison M. Parker,

Book cover of Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

Unceasing Militant is the first-ever biography of Mary Church Terrell, a prominent activist who fought for gender and racial equality. She lived a long, noteworthy life. Terrell was born enslaved in 1863 and died in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools. She was among the first Black American women to complete a BA and an MA, and she became the first president of the National Association of Colored women in 1896. Terrell was a popular speaker, and--just like some of us--she also loved to wear fashionable hats and clothes. Terrell picketed the White House with suffragists in 1917 and picketed against segregation even when she was in her 80s! Alison Parker captures her fascinating life in this essential new biography.


Who am I?

I’m Allison Lange, and I’m a historian who writes, gives talks, teaches, and curates exhibitions. For the 19th Amendment centennial, I served as Historian for the United States Congress’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. I am also creating the first filmed series on American women’s history for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses). My first book, Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement focuses on the ways that women’s voting rights activists and their opponents used images to define gender and power. My next book situates current iconic pictures within the context of historical ones to demonstrate that today’s visual debates about gender and politics are shaped by those of the past.


I wrote...

Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

By Allison Lange,

Book cover of Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement

What is my book about?

For as long as women have battled for equitable political representation in America, those battles have been defined by images—whether illustrations, engravings, photographs, or colorful chromolithograph posters. Some of these pictures have been flattering, many have been condescending, and others downright incendiary. They have drawn upon prevailing cultural ideas of women’s perceived roles and abilities and often have been circulated with pointedly political objectives.

Picturing Political Power offers perhaps the most comprehensive analysis yet of the connection between images, gender, and power. This book demonstrates the centrality of visual politics to American women’s campaigns throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the power of images to change history.

The South Strikes Back

By Hodding Carter,

Book cover of The South Strikes Back

While many books are written after the event or events contained in the book, this book is contemporary to the events it relates to. In this case the birth and growth of the Citizens Councils in the Deep South in the mid-1950s. 

The author and then managing editor of the Greenville Democratic Times sets out, in a clear and readily understood way, the mood of the day among the white-collar political and business classes in the months and years immediately following the Brown v Board of Education decision.

It’s a worthy read and a touchstone of the rising political temperatures of those times.  


Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s for many years. Keen to understand not just events in that timeframe, I also needed to understand how those entrenched and diametrically opposed positions had occurred. What triggered the responses of water cannon, German shepherd dogs, and Billy clubs to seemingly peaceful students marching or seated in a particular section of a café? Over a period of seventeen years, I amassed a private collection of books, magazines, newspapers, over two hundred in all, along with material from various state-run Departments of Archives of History, further amplifying my fascination and providing fodder for my book.


I wrote...

The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

By Derek R. King,

Book cover of The Life and Times of Clyde Kennard

What is my book about?

With many recognizable names from the American civil rights movement, a few are overlooked by history. The award-winning biography is about the forgotten history of Clyde Kennard, a man who used his desire for education to challenge institutionalized segregation in Mississippi after being denied admission. 

For many, Kennard’s attempt to enroll at Mississippi State College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) is viewed as the first serious attempt to integrate any public school at the college or higher level in Mississippi. This book tells the compelling story of his attempt to enter MSC, placed in the context of key events in the civil rights movement. Kennard’s story is an uplifting and inspiring example of perseverance, and committed determination to right wrongs.

The Nuremberg Legacy

By Norbert Ehrenfreund,

Book cover of The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History

I found Ehrenfreund’s book compelling because he applied his legal expertise as a lawyer and judge to what he personally witnessed at the trial. His research included numerous conversations with Germans who lived through the Nazi regime. I also valued his insights as they were informed by his personal journey to learn his grandfather’s fate many years after he disappeared into the Holocaust. While Ehrenfreund reveals how U.S. law heavily influenced the law applied at Nuremberg, I found his analysis of the trial’s subsequent influence on U.S. law revealing. For example, Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor at Nuremberg and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was impacted by the racial hatred that underlies the crimes of the Holocaust in Brown v. Board of Education, The U.S. Court’s school desegregation decision.


Who am I?

I am a tired activist and recovering attorney. My professional focus on violence and humanity’s response to it began when, as a seven-year-old, the nuns at my Catholic school showed us newsreels of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. This led me to adopt as my life’s guiding principle Julian Beck’s admonition “to redeem our share of the universal cruelty.” After 20 years in the U.S. Violence Against Women Movement, I absconded to the former Yugoslavia and found myself in the middle of a war during which I ran a war crimes documentation project (memoir in progress). I later reported on the international war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic.


I wrote...

Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

By Judith Armatta,

Book cover of Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

What is my book about?

Twilight of Impunity is based on the 300-plus dispatches I wrote while monitoring the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first such trial since Nazis faced justice at Nuremberg. The book brings to life the stories of survivors, makes complex legal theories understandable, and argues that the trial created a framework for other international war crimes trials and the permanent International Criminal Court. I show how Milosevic attempted to highjack the trial and use it as a vehicle for his propaganda about the Balkan wars and his role in them. For all its flaws, the trial provided a step forward in the quest for international justice as a replacement for impunity and the eternal cycle of hatred and violence. 

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