The best civil rights books

40 authors have picked their favorite books about civil rights and why they recommend each book.

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The Second Founding

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution

Eric Foner is our nation’s foremost historian of Reconstruction, the author of dozens of books and articles. This is my favorite—it takes the research and thought of a monumental career and packages it for maximum impact. In just over 200 pages, it takes you through the changes of the Civil War and Reconstruction and their relevance for America today. 

The Second Founding

By Eric Foner,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Second Founding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Declaration of Independence announced equality as an American ideal but it took the Civil War and the adoption of three constitutional amendments to establish that ideal as law. The Reconstruction amendments abolished slavery, guaranteed due process and the equal protection of the law, and equipped black men with the right to vote. By grafting the principle of equality onto the Constitution, the amendments marked the second founding of the United States.

Eric Foner conveys the dramatic origins of these revolutionary amendments and explores the court decisions that then narrowed and nullified the rights guaranteed in these amendments. Today, issues…


Who am I?

I’ve always loved America and our Constitution. I went to law school, I clerked at the Supreme Court, and I ended up teaching Constitutional law at Penn. But as I learned more about the Constitution and our history, I realized that the story I’d absorbed growing up about what our values were and where they came from didn’t ring true. Things were a little more complicated. And so I did my own research. I read dozens of books, including the ones listed here. And in the end, I found a story that was both more true and more inspiring than the one we learned in school. 


I wrote...

The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story

By Kermit Roosevelt III,

Book cover of The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America's Story

What is my book about?

There’s a story we tell ourselves about America: that our fundamental values were stated in the Declaration of Independence, fought for in the Revolution, and made law in the Constitution. And American history, we like to think, is a process of more fully realizing those founding values. 

But none of this is true. Our fundamental values come not from Founding America but from resistance to it. They were stated not in the Declaration but in the Gettysburg Address, fought for not in the Revolution but in the Civil War, and made law not in the original Constitution but in the very different Reconstruction Constitution. We modern Americans are the heirs not of Founding America but of the people who overthrow and destroyed that political order.

Salvador

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of Salvador

An account of El Salvador’s era of “disappearances” from one of the best non-fiction writers of her generation. Didion interviews the president, visits smoldering body dumps on the edge of San Salvador, and captures the atmosphere of revolution, civil strife, and Soviet-American rivalry that afflicted El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala in the 1980s. Essential reading for understanding the scars that continue to plague the region today.

Salvador

By Joan Didion,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

El Salvador, 1982, is at the height of a ghastly civil war. Joan Didion travels from battlefields to body dumps, interviews a puppet president, considers the distinctly Salvadorean meaning of the verb 'to disappear' and trains a merciless eye not only on the terror there but also on the depredations and evasions of US foreign policy. Salvador is a restless and unflinching masterclass in the art of reportage by one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century.


Who am I?

Ryan Murdock is Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost, Canada’s national travel magazine, and a weekly columnist for The Shift, an independent Maltese news portal. His feature articles have taken him across a remote stretch of Canada’s Northwest Territories on foot, into the Central Sahara in search of prehistoric rock art, and around Wales with a drug squad detective hunting for the real King Arthur.


I wrote...

Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America

By Ryan Murdock,

Book cover of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America

What is my book about?

Vagabond Dreams explores the process of psychological and emotional change experienced by the traveller, set against the backdrop of a solo journey through Central America. No trip has the same impact of that first time you set out alone on the road. It mirrors The Hero’s Journey, but without grand heroism. This is a personal mythology, revealed by the self-imposed hardships of the road.

These Truths

By Jill Lepore,

Book cover of These Truths: A History of the United States

Jill Lepore is a distinguished historian and staff writer for the New Yorker. In this volume, she focuses on the ideals of political equality and civil rights that shaped America. Deeply attuned to the struggles that have shaped the United States, the book offers a sweeping lyrical introduction to American history.

These Truths

By Jill Lepore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The American experiment rests on three ideas-"these truths", Jefferson called them-political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. And it rests, too, "on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching", writes Jill Lepore in a ground-breaking investigation into the American past that places truth at the centre of the nation's history.

Telling the story of America, beginning in 1492, These Truths asks whether the course of events has proven the nation's founding truths or belied them. Finding meaning in contradiction, Lepore weaves American history into a tapestry of faith and hope, of peril and prosperity, of technological progress…


Who am I?

Louis P. Masur is a cultural historian who has written on a range of topics in American history, from Abraham Lincoln to Bruce Springsteen, from the first World Series to a photograph that shocked the nation. An award-winning teacher, Masur lectures frequently on various topics in American history. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and Slate. The Sum of Our Dreams emerged out a course he teaches on the American Dream, which, somehow, he still believes in.


I wrote...

The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

By Louis P. Masur,

Book cover of The Sum of Our Dreams: A Concise History of America

What is my book about?

In The Sum of Our Dreams, Louis P. Masur offers a sweeping yet compact history of America from its beginnings to the current moment. For general readers seeking an accessible, single-volume account, one that challenges but does not overwhelm, and which distills and connects the major events and figures in the country's past in a single narrative, here is that book.

Evoking Barack Obama's belief that America remains the sum of its dreams, Masur locates the origin of those dreams of freedom, equality, and opportunity and traces their progress chronologically, illuminating the nation's struggle over time to articulate and fulfill their promise. Above all, however, Masur lets the story of America tell itself. Inspired by James Baldwin's observation that American history is longer, larger, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, he expands our notion of that history while identifying its individual threads. 

Stuck in Place

By Patrick Sharkey,

Book cover of Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality

Pat Sharkey draws on a rich longitudinal dataset (the Panel Study of Income Dynamics) that follows individuals and households over decades and keeps track of them as they change, move, and form new households. He uses it to show that Black Americans are unique in the degree to which they are confined to poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods across time and the generations, and how neighborhood disadvantage works so powerfully to perpetuate poverty and stymie upward mobility.

Stuck in Place

By Patrick Sharkey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stuck in Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1960s, many believed that the civil rights movement's successes would foster a new era of racial equality in America. Four decades later, the degree of racial inequality has barely changed. To understand what went wrong, Patrick Sharkey argues that we have to understand what has happened to African American communities over the last several decades. In "Stuck in Place", Sharkey describes how political decisions and social policies have led to severe disinvestment from black neighborhoods, persistent segregation, declining economic opportunities, and a growing link between African American communities and the criminal justice system. As a result, neighborhood inequality…


Who am I?

My mother was the child of immigrants from Finland with grade-school educations who grew up in a small Alaskan town with no roads in or out. She came down to the “lower 48” during the Second World War to work her way through the University of Washington, where she met my father. He was a multigenerational American with two college-educated parents. His mother graduated from Whitman College in 1919 and looked down on my mother as a child of poorly educated immigrants. She was also openly hostile toward Catholics, Blacks, and Jews and probably didn’t think much of Finns either. Witnessing my grandmother’s disdain for minorities and the poor including my mother, I learned about racism and class prejudice firsthand. But I am my mother’s son, and I resented my grandmother’s self-satisfied posturing. Therefore I’ve always been on the side of the underdog and made it my business to learn all that I could about how inequalities are produced and perpetuated in the United States, and to do all I can to make the world a fairer, more egalitarian place.


I wrote...

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

By Douglas S. Massey, Nancy A. Denton,

Book cover of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

What is my book about?

American Apartheid describes how Black residential segregation was created during the first seven decades of the 20th century by powerful white actors in the public and private sectors, who collectively worked to isolate black in-migrants within ghettos for purposes of exclusion and exploitation. As a result, high levels of segregation prevailed throughout metropolitan America as of 1980.

Public policies enacted during the 1930s institutionalized the discriminatory of realtors and lenders, ensuring that Blacks were confined to recognized Black neighborhoods and that these were cut off from capital and credit to guarantee their decline. As Black poverty rates increased during the 1970s and 1980s, segregation served to concentrate deprivation spatially to create a supremely disadvantaged context that acted to perpetuate black poverty over the life course and across the generations, giving rise to what in the 1980s was known as the “urban underclass.”

Notes of a Native Son

By James Baldwin,

Book cover of Notes of a Native Son

Baldwin writes both fiction and non-fiction beautifully and intimately and if you don’t know his non-fiction work then this is a very good place to start. Across a number of essays, he elegantly sets out the deep struggle faced by Black Americans and articulates how a different humanity, in America and beyond, and a different future can be realized. 

Notes of a Native Son

By James Baldwin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Notes of a Native Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#26 on The Guardian's list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time, the essays explore what it means to be Black in America

In an age of Black Lives Matter, James Baldwin's essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written. With films like I Am Not Your Negro and the forthcoming If Beale Street Could Talk bringing renewed interest to Baldwin's life and work, Notes of a Native Son serves as a valuable introduction.

Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was…


Who am I?

I have been an activist working on issues relating to human rights and youth protection for over fifteen years and during that time I worked as a lawyer and was lucky enough to make films and write two novels. Eventually, I would concentrate solely on activism and my reading would become very specific and as the focus of my activism changed and I directed my energies to corporate accountability my reading changed course again. The list I offer is from talented writers on important subjects, all write extremely well about things that matter to a human rights activist.  


I wrote...

All the Flowers in Shanghai

By Duncan Jepson,

Book cover of All the Flowers in Shanghai

What is my book about?

I wrote All the Flowers in Shanghai as an attempt to understand the issue of forced marriage from a woman’s perspective. An experience I clearly do not and will not ever have. At the same time, I wanted to look at such an event from the people around the victim – her parents, husband-to-be, and even sibling. What reactions might they have? How might they respond? It was also an opportunity to describe and explore a portion of China’s history as it responded to huge social and political movements. I believe the pace was very important and I hope I captured the changes in daily rhythms as history swallows up the characters’ lives as they move from imperial China to modern China.

Colored Travelers

By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor,

Book cover of Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship Before the Civil War

Rosa Parks is an essential icon of the Civil Rights Movement, but the history of Black women and men turning segregation and discrimination during travel into a platform to negotiate the rights of citizenship has a long arc. Pryor gives us the longer backstory to the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement and 21st-century movement for Black lives when she traces how 19th-century Black men and women traveling in stage coaches, rail cars, and steam ships were often on the front lines of the struggle for Americans’ equal protection under the law.

Colored Travelers

By Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Americans have long regarded the freedom of travel a central tenet of citizenship. Yet, in the United States, freedom of movement has historically been a right reserved for whites. In this book, Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor shows that African Americans fought obstructions to their mobility over 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. These were "colored travelers," activists who relied on steamships, stagecoaches, and railroads to expand their networks and to fight slavery and racism. They refused to ride in "Jim Crow" railroad cars, fought for the right to hold a U.S. passport…


Who am I?

After growing up in South Florida, a longstanding crossroads of Southern, Latin, and Caribbean culture, I became a student of the African Diaspora in the Americas. I learned that Africans preceded the English in the Americas and arrived in greater numbers than Europeans until 1820. As a history professor and researcher, I continually came across the stories of Black men and women, enslaved and free, who started independence movements, fought in revolutions, established schools, businesses, newspapers, and political organizations - men and women who challenged slavery and discrimination and championed freedom at every opportunity. The number of individuals was overwhelming and fundamentally altered how I understand American history and democracy.


I wrote...

American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

By Christina Proenza-Coles,

Book cover of American Founders: How People of African Descent Established Freedom in the New World

What is my book about?

Spanning 1500-1950, American Founders reveals men and women of African descent as key protagonists in the story of American democracy. Sixteenth-century Africans and Afro-descendants accompanied campaigns from Canada to Chile, inaugurating a continuous tradition of Black military service. Seventeenth-century Afro-Americans continued to shape American history as explorers, soldiers, servants, slaves, cowboys, pirates, priests, proprietors, artisans, rebels, and maroons.

While resistance to slavery began in the 1500s, the 18th century saw major military and legal actions for freedom – Afro-Americans paved the way for and participated in the independence wars of the Age of Revolution. Nineteenth-century Afro-Americans negotiated citizenship as soldiers, entrepreneurs, educators, journalists, professionals, and activists. Twentieth-century Black Americans continued to champion universal rights, equality, justice, and civic engagement through endeavors and innovations in politics, law, academia, science, medicine, business, journalism, and art.

Torchbearers of Democracy

By Chad L. Williams,

Book cover of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era

Torchbearers is a pathbreaking history of the fight for American democracy during World War I, told from the perspective of African American servicemen who joined, fought, and returned from battle. Already engaged in conflict over civil rights in the US, African Americans took seriously the call to “make the world safe for democracy.” Through writing, activism, and organizing, they linked their domestic fight to the foreign fight against democracy’s enemies. Perhaps no other group in the US, Williams shows, was poised to engage the very biggest questions that animated the war – questions of citizenship, rights, freedom, and empire – as were African Americans. And their wartime service, he shows, was the crucible for the long freedom movement that followed.  

Torchbearers of Democracy

By Chad L. Williams,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson thrust the United States into World War I by declaring, ""The world must be made safe for democracy."" For the 380,000 African American soldiers who fought and labored in the global conflict, these words carried life or death meaning. Relating stories bridging the war and postwar years, spanning the streets of Chicago and the streets of Harlem, from the battlefields of the American South to the battlefields of the Western Front, Chad L. Williams reveals the central role of African American soldiers in World War I and how they, along with race activists and…


Who am I?

I never thought I’d become a historian of the US military. Like most Americans raised in the era of the All-Volunteer Force, I grew up with no close personal connections to the US military. Yet its symbols, metaphors, and power flooded my life, from movies to games to politics. Every encounter with a memoir, an operational history, a biography, or a government study offered a new understanding of how the US military came to play such a vital role in US society, and how US society in turn shaped practices and people in the military. These five histories did more than any others to shape my understanding of the military’s relationship to American society in the twentieth century.


I wrote...

Rise of the Military Welfare State

By Jennifer Mittelstadt,

Book cover of Rise of the Military Welfare State

What is my book about?

Since the end of the draft, the U.S. Army has prided itself on its patriotic volunteers who heed the call to “Be All That You Can Be.” But beneath the recruitment slogans, the army promised volunteers something more tangible: a social safety net including medical and dental care, education, child care, financial counseling, housing assistance, legal services, and other privileges that had long been reserved for career soldiers. 

The Rise of the Military Welfare State examines how the U.S. Army’s extension of benefits to enlisted men and women created a military welfare system of unprecedented size and scope at the end of the twentieth century. And it examines how this welfare state fared amidst the rollback of civilian social welfare, a turn to “self-reliance” within the military leadership, and the growth of military privatization and outsourcing.  

Book cover of Origins of the Civil Rights Movements

Although a little older, this remains in my view the best book on the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the heroic period of Dr. King and the student sit-ins. Born and raised in rural Mississippi during that time, Morris tells a rich story of the influence of religion: the songs, prayers, and scriptural references, but also the material resources such as churches to meet in, networks of preachers to spread information, and the conduit for funds to flow from more affluent Black communities to those battling on the frontline during the bloody fight for civil rights.

Origins of the Civil Rights Movements

By Aldon D. Morris,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A “valuable, eye-opening work” (The Boston Globe) about the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Mrs. Rosa Parks, weary after a long day at work, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man…and ignited the explosion that was the civil rights movement in America. In this powerful saga, Morris tells the complete story behind the ten years that transformed America, tracing the essential role of the black community organizations that was the real power behind the civil rights movement. Drawing on interviews with more than fifty key leaders,…


Who am I?

James M. Jasper has written a number of books and articles on politics and social movements since the 1980s, trying to get inside them to see what participants feel and think. In recent years he has examined the many emotions, good and bad, involved in political engagement. He summarizes what he has learned in this short book, The Emotions of Protest, taking the reader step by step through the emotions that generate actions, to those that link us to groups, down to the emotional and moral impacts of social movements. The book is hopeful and inspiring but at the same time also clear-eyed about the limitations of protest politics.


I wrote...

The Emotions of Protest

By James M. Jasper,

Book cover of The Emotions of Protest

What is my book about?

This is a book centered on protest, but James M. Jasper also points toward broader paths of inquiry that have the power to transform the way social scientists picture social life and action. Through emotions, he says, we are embedded in a variety of environmental, bodily, social, moral, and temporal contexts, as we feel our way both consciously and unconsciously toward some things and away from others. Politics and collective action have always been a kind of laboratory for working out models of human action more generally, and emotions are no exception.

Both hearts and minds rely on the same feelings racing through our central nervous systems. Protestors have emotions, like everyone else, but theirs are thinking hearts, not bleeding hearts. Brains can feel, and hearts can think.

Unequal Freedom

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn,

Book cover of Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor

In Unequal Freedom, Nakano Glenn provides a brilliant analysis of how the multiple axes of power relations, including race, gender, and labor, have shaped the terms of citizenship in the United States. In the process, Glenn unpacks how the history of the concept of citizenship is a powerful tool for understanding the various ways power dynamics have influenced the terms of belonging to a national community. Glenn’s book is an inspiring study that has pushed me to think more deeply about the notion of citizenship and to understand that the concept of citizenship involves more than just indicating one’s nationality status. As Glenn shows, citizenship denotes a system of deeply entrenched boundaries that have determined not only who is allowed to be a member of a certain community, but also who is allowed to be an active participant in governing that community. 

Unequal Freedom

By Evelyn Nakano Glenn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The inequalities that persist in America have deep historical roots. Evelyn Nakano Glenn untangles this complex history in a unique comparative regional study from the end of Reconstruction to the eve of World War II. During this era the country experienced enormous social and economic changes with the abolition of slavery, rapid territorial expansion, and massive immigration, and struggled over the meaning of free labor and the essence of citizenship as people who previously had been excluded sought the promise of economic freedom and full political rights.

After a lucid overview of the concepts of the free worker and the…


Who am I?

I am a historian with a PhD in history from American University. My research has focused on the changing nature of U.S. citizenship after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In particular, my newly released book, Gendered Citizenship, sheds light on the competing civic ideologies embedded in the original conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) from the 1920s through the 1960s. My research has won recognition through several grants and fellowships and my writing has appeared in the Washington Post, History News Network, New America Weekly, Gender on the Ballot, and Frontiers


I wrote...

Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

By Rebecca DeWolf,

Book cover of Gendered Citizenship: The Original Conflict over the Equal Rights Amendment, 1920-1963

What is my book about?

By engaging deeply with United States’ legal and political history, Gendered Citizenship illuminates the ideological contours of the original ERA conflict. Through an extensive examination of almost-forty different archival collections, several court cases, and a multitude of government documents, Gendered Citizenship unearths the array of both men and women who participated in the original conflict. In the process, Gendered Citizenship takes the struggle over the ERA in an entirely new direction.

Rather than focusing on the familiar theme of why the ERA failed to gain enactment, Gendered Citizenship explores how the debates over the ERA transcended traditional political divides in the early to mid-twentieth century and ultimately redefined the concept of citizenship in the United States.

Black Is a Country

By Nikhil Pal Singh,

Book cover of Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy

We often learn about African American history in the 20th Century in terms of a conflict between nonviolent resistance vs. violent radicalism, integrationism vs. separatism, Martin vs. Malcolm. But this is an over-simplification of a complex and dynamic moment in the history of our nation. More than any other work, Black is a Country helped me think differently about the period that I study, and see African American history and culture of the mid-20th Century in a new way.

Black Is a Country

By Nikhil Pal Singh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Black Is a Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Despite black gains in modern America, the end of racism is not yet in sight. Nikhil Pal Singh asks what happened to the worldly and radical visions of equality that animated black intellectual activists from W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. In so doing, he constructs an alternative history of civil rights in the twentieth century, a long civil rights era, in which radical hopes and global dreams are recognized as central to the history of black struggle.

It is through the words and thought of key black intellectuals, like…


Who am I?

I am a theater historian whose research focuses on African American theater of 1940s-50s. While other periods and movements—the Harlem Renaissance (1920s), the Federal Theatre Project (1930s), the Black Arts Movement (1960s), and contemporary theater—have been well studied and documented, I saw a gap of scholarship around the 1940s-50s; I wondered why those years had been largely overlooked. As I dived deeper, I saw how African American performance culture (ie. theater, film, television, music) of the later-20th Century had its roots in the history of those somewhat overlooked decades. I’m still investigating that story, and these books have helped me do it.


I wrote...

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

By Jonathan Shandell,

Book cover of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

What is my book about?

You may know of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a neighborhood theater company in Harlem that lasted for about ten years. The writers this company produced—Abram Hill, Theodore Brown, Owen Dodson—are not household names. You may not recognize the title Anna Lucasta: a comedy about an African American family that the ANT turned into a runaway Broadway hit in the 1940s. But the legacy of this theater company—and the work of its writers, its actors, and its productions—was key for creating the popular African American culture we all do know.

To fully understand the emergence of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and The Cosby Show, you need to know about the American Negro Theatre and its transformative artistic legacy.

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