The most recommended civil rights books

Who picked these books? Meet our 103 experts.

103 authors created a book list connected to civil rights, and here are their favorite civil rights books.
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Book cover of Little Brother

Kat Wheeler Author Of There Is No Cloud

From my list on technothrillers with accurate technology representation.

Who am I?

I’m just a book-loving girl working in a corporate world who’s sick to death of the inaccurate representations of technology in fiction. FYI, tracing a phone call is instantaneous, no need to keep that pesky murderer on the line these days. Technology is so ingrained in our daily lives and most people have very limited knowledge of what it actually does, so I became fascinated with the idea of using real modern-day tech in murder mysteries. I got so obsessed with the idea I decided to write it. No Sci-Fi of future tech, it may seem farfetched, but all the electronic wizardry used in my novels is real and accurately represented.

Kat's book list on technothrillers with accurate technology representation

Kat Wheeler Why did Kat love this book?

Cory Doctorow, the champion of nerds everywhere really hit the nail on the head with his book about the state of current politics and society with Little Brother. This book was released in 2008 but seems truer to life now than ever. His protagonist Marcus, watches appalled as the government begins to strip away citizens' rights under the guise of our protection. This book has been called dystopian young adult fiction, but I disagree. It all feels very familiar to the current climate we live in. It can get a little preachy but regardless of your personal politics it’s a must-read for all.

By Cory Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Little Brother as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

Marcus, a.k.a "w1n5t0n," is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works–and how to work the system. Smart, fast, and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school's intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems.

But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison where they're…

Book cover of Parting the Waters

Jim Carrier Author Of A Traveler’s Guide to the Civil Rights Movement

From my list on understanding the South’s Civil Rights Movement.

Who am I?

As a journalist who learned his craft on the job in the tumultuous 1960s, I happened to find myself living in states where racial history was being written. Reporting that story required me to understand why discrimination, poverty, and violence remained so deeply rooted in modern America. I wrote Ten Ways to Fight Hate, I made a movie about civil rights martyrs, and, after seeing people from around the world making a pilgrimage to the sites of the civil rights struggle, published my guidebook. Over the course of a 50-year career, I have written a million words. I am proudest of those that tried to right wrongs, and sometimes did.

Jim's book list on understanding the South’s Civil Rights Movement

Jim Carrier Why did Jim love this book?

As I drove through the South researching my guidebook to civil rights sites, my back seat was filled with books. Atop the pile was Taylor Branch’s magisterial three-volume history – America in the King Years 1954-1968: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge.

Though encyclopedic, Branch’s story-telling is riveting—weaving together personalities, legalities, strategies, and geography in a way that made me feel as if I were there witnessing history as it was made. Taylor’s detail, reflecting a journalist’s quest for who, what, where, when, how, and why, showed me that these stories could best be told, understood, and felt where they happened.

By Taylor Branch,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Parting the Waters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Parting the Waters, the first volume of his essential America in the King Years series, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch gives a “compelling…masterfully told” (The Wall Street Journal) account of Martin Luther King’s early years and rise to greatness.

Hailed as the most masterful story ever told of the American Civil Rights Movement, Parting the Waters is destined to endure for generations.

Moving from the fiery political baptism of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the corridors of Camelot where the Kennedy brothers weighed demands for justice against the deceptions of J. Edgar Hoover, here is a vivid tapestry of…

Book cover of If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer

Steven L. Davis Author Of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD

From my list on the sixties counterculture from Texans.

Who am I?

I’ve been reading, studying, and writing about Texas literature for over 25 years. I’m the longtime literary curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, which holds the archives of many leading writers from Texas and the Southwest. I have a personal passion for the 1960s and have written/co-written three nonfiction books set in the sixties.

Steven's book list on the sixties counterculture from Texans

Steven L. Davis Why did Steven love this book?

Dick J. Reavis was a white teenager from Texas when he joined the Civil Rights movement in 1965. If White Kids Die is his clear-eyed, unsentimental memoir of his experiences in Alabama for the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. It’s a fascinating, grassroots view from a foot soldier of the movement, someone far removed for the glamorous leadership positions.

Following his stint with SNCC, Reavis later joined SDS and became a prominent anti-war protester in Austin. During his time in the Movement, Reavis endured beatings, jailings, denunciations, and poverty. All of that, as it turned out, was good preparation for his eventual career: a life in journalism. He has since become a legendary journalist in Texas, famed for his tough and daring reporting. He once told me: “I knew Spanish, knew how to live poor, knew how to lie to bosses."

By Dick J. Reavis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If White Kids Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1965 Dick J. Reavis, a white middle-class Texan, decided to join a voter registration programme, and spent a summer on the wrong side of the tracks in Demopolis, Alabama. This work describes his gradual maturation as he encountered the other side of legally-enforced racism.

Book cover of Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation

Kimberly A. Hamlin Author Of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener

From my list on women fighting for bodily and political autonomy.

Who am I?

I was born in 1974 and grew up in a time when, at least on paper, women had equal rights. I also grew up not far from Harriet Tubman’s home, not far from Seneca Falls, not far from Susan B. Anthony’s house. I became a historian of women’s rights and, I sometimes joke, a secular evangelical for women’s history. Writing Free Thinker was, professionally, the most fun I have ever had. I can think of no better time than right now to study the histories of women who understood that bodily autonomy and political autonomy are two sides of the same coin and who dedicated their lives to securing both. 

Kimberly's book list on women fighting for bodily and political autonomy

Kimberly A. Hamlin Why did Kimberly love this book?

In my classes on women, sex, and gender, students almost always ask, “why have we never learned this before?” This is particularly true when it comes to the role of sexual violence in our nation’s history. Estelle Freedman’s pathbreaking book Redefining Rape documents how central sexual violence has been to U.S. history and law, and how women—particularly women of color—have fought against rape. Not only has sexual violence played a formative role in our history, a defining feature of U.S. jurisprudence is the racialization of rape—meaning the false idea that only Black men rape and only white women can be raped—when, in fact, as Freedman powerfully demonstrates, sexual violence has long been a tool of white supremacy. 

By Estelle B. Freedman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Rape has never had a universally accepted definition, and the uproar over "legitimate rape" during the 2012 U.S. elections confirms that it remains a word in flux. Redefining Rape tells the story of the forces that have shaped the meaning of sexual violence in the United States, through the experiences of accusers, assailants, and advocates for change. In this ambitious new history, Estelle Freedman demonstrates that our definition of rape has depended heavily on dynamics of political power and social privilege.

The long-dominant view of rape in America envisioned a brutal attack on a chaste white woman by a male…

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Author Of James Baldwin's Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile

From my list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile.

Who am I?

Born and raised in Poland during the Cold War, I learned that writers and intellectuals could be jailed, exiled, or even killed for their ideas. I came to James Baldwin over two decades ago in search of literature that told of freedom and humanism beyond national borders and simplistic binaries. As a Black queer man driven away from his homeland, Baldwin linked his personal pain, heartbreak, and torment to his public life, authorship, and activism. His art and life story have both inspired my labors as a bilingual and bicultural literary critic and biographer and provided a template for my own journey as an immigrant, mother of a Black child, teacher, writer, and scholar.

Magdalena's book list on James Baldwin as a Black queer exile

Magdalena J. Zaborowska Why did Magdalena love this book?

This book grew out of the labor of love both scholarly and personal. It brings together three generations of scholars and diverse, interdisciplinary approaches to this complex and still largely misunderstood and underappreciated Black queer writer and theorist of 20th-century US identity. Michele Elam’s introduction deftly reevaluates and situates Baldwin as a 20th-century master for contemporary readers here and now, while the essays collected here provide cutting-edge scholarship and much nuance and fresh insight. Theoretically rich and with several exquisitely written essays, it touches upon all of the major aspects of the writer’s fascinating life and works.

By Michele Elam (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This Companion offers fresh insight into the art and politics of James Baldwin, one of the most important writers and provocative cultural critics of the twentieth century. Black, gay, and gifted, he was hailed as a 'spokesman for the race', although he personally, and controversially, eschewed titles and classifications of all kinds. Individual essays examine his classic novels and nonfiction as well as his work across lesser-examined domains: poetry, music, theatre, sermon, photo-text, children's literature, public media, comedy, and artistic collaboration. In doing so, The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin captures the power and influence of his work during the…

Book cover of Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Its Sources

W. Jason Miller Author Of Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric

From my list on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his words.

Who am I?

Lost audio reels, archived poetry drafts, personal interviews, and undeveloped photograph negatives spark my compulsive curiosity to tell stories about language that people have never heard. Uncovering what is hidden has led to a digital project dedicated to Martin Luther King’s first “I Have a Dream” speech, a museum exhibit based on never-before-seen images of an 1,800 person KKK march staged in opposition to a King appearance in 1966, and an intimate interview with Dorothy Cotton about her memories of Dr. King. Of my three books, I have written a recent biography, Langston Hughes: Critical Lives. Part of my current research details the poet’s collaborative relationship with jazz singer Nina Simone.  

W.'s book list on Martin Luther King, Jr. and his words

W. Jason Miller Why did W. love this book?

This groundbreaking study is an insider’s guide to how a whole era of black southern preachers spoke to their congregations. Ever-curious about the artistry it takes to riff, remix, and sample earlier sources, this book illuminates the added depth that comes with language once the various trajectories of its previous uses are named, contextualized, and dated. Every new voice has an older one behind it. Seeing where they merge is a fascinating journey when someone this informed is driving.

By Keith D. Miller,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Martin Luther King Jr's words defined, mobilized and embodied much of the American civil rights movement, crystallizing the hope and demand for racial justice in America. His powerful sermons and speeches were unique in their ability to unite blacks and whites in the quest for reform. Yet, disclosures about King's unattributed appropriations in his PhD dissertation have raised the broader question of whether King's persuasive voice was truly his own. In this study of the language of King, Keith D. Miller explores his words to find the intellectual roots, spiritual resonances and actual sources of those speeches and essays that…

Book cover of Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom

Marc Dollinger Author Of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

From my list on social justice.

Who am I?

I’ve devoted my academic career and personal life to the limits and possibilities of white liberal approaches to civil rights reform. Trained in U.S. history and published in American Jewish history, I look closely at how ethnic groups and religious minorities interact with their racial and gender status to create a sometimes-surprising perspective on both history and our current day. At times powerful and at other times powerless, Jews (and other white ethnics) navigate a complex course in civil rights advocacy.

Marc's book list on social justice

Marc Dollinger Why did Marc love this book?

By investigating what white liberal Greensboro meant with the word “civility” against what black activists meant by “civil rights,” Chafe dives deep into the limits of white liberalism, undermining the claim that civil rights could be achieved by following a slow, southern, and civil, approach.

By William Henry Chafe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Reveals how whites in Greensboro used the traditional Southern concept of civility as a means of keeping Black protest in check and how Black activists continually devised new ways of asserting their quest for freedom.

Book cover of Notes of a Native Son

Duncan Jepson Author Of All the Flowers in Shanghai

From my list on about protest.

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.  

Duncan's book list on about protest

Duncan Jepson Why did Duncan love this book?

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. 

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…

Book cover of Origins of the Civil Rights Movements

James M. Jasper Author Of The Emotions of Protest

From my list on what drives protestors.

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.

James' book list on what drives protestors

James M. Jasper Why did James love this book?

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.

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,…

Book cover of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson

Allyson Brantley Author Of Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism

From my list on boycotts & consumer activism.

Who am I?

I’m a Colorado-raised and California-based historian, professor, and writer. I recently published my first book, Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism, which explores the history of one of the longest-running consumer boycotts in American history – the boycott of Coors beer. In telling this particular history, I became fascinated with the boycott as a tool of protest and activism. The boycott is an iconic and regular feature of American politics and history, but it is often dismissed as ineffective or passive. The books on this list (as well as many others) have helped to convince me that the boycott and consumer activism can be powerful forms of solidarity-building and protest.

Allyson's book list on boycotts & consumer activism

Allyson Brantley Why did Allyson love this book?

One of the most iconic and best-known boycotts of the 20th century is the 1955-1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched by Rosa Parks’ famous act of civil disobedience. But as Blair L.M. Kelley demonstrates in Right to Ride, the Montgomery movement grew out of a longer tradition of boycotts and protest in the United States. In the 1850s, Black women in New York City protested segregation in the city’s streetcars. Decades later, Black activists boycotted segregated streetcars in at least twenty-five southern cities between 1900 and 1907. Kelley’s book, which tells this forgotten and, at times, failed history, reminds us that boycott movements are important forms of resistance – even under threats of violence and in the face of significant obstacles.

By Blair L.M. Kelley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A civil rights movement in an earlier generation. Through a reexamination of the earliest struggles against Jim Crow, Blair Kelley exposes the fullness of African American efforts to resist the passage of segregation laws dividing trains and streetcars by race in the early Jim Crow era. ""Right to Ride"" chronicles the litigation and local organizing against segregated rails that led to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 and the streetcar boycott movement waged in twenty-five southern cities from 1900 to 1907. Kelley tells the stories of the brave but little-known men and women who faced down the violence of…