The best Civil Rights Movement books 📚

Browse the best books on the Civil Rights Movement as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty

By Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson

Why this book?

This book embeds historical accounts of successful and unsuccessful countries within a framework that posits the need for balance between freedom and authoritarianism. Acemoglu and Robinson see societies not as in equilibrium, but as constantly in flux. Rather than seeing a choice between freedom (or free markets) and government, they see a tussle. History consists of the state and the people engaged in a Red Queen Game, each trying to outpace the other with liberty hanging in the balance. Rather than guaranteed through constitutional decree, liberty, and the economic and social success it promotes, is a tenuous, contingent, and precious…

From the list:

The best books for an aspiring or inspiring social scientist

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Book cover of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63

By Taylor Branch

Why this book?

There is no shortage of fine books out there about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement. Branch’s book, however, does the best job of situating King’s activism at the center of the larger story of the entire United States during this time. Among much else, Branch’s sprawling, riveting narrative (this 1000+ page volume is merely the first in a series of three) helps us see how a nonviolent movement influences as it responds to traditional, institutional sites of power. A truly illuminating book.

From the list:

The best, most inspirational books about nonviolent leaders

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Book cover of Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Race Rebels : Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

By Robin D. G. Kelley

Why this book?

This book is a brilliant collection of essays highlighting “race rebels,” where Kelley looks outside of traditional politics and organized movements to find Black resistance to forces such as white supremacy, labor exploitation, and war. Kelley focuses in on the everyday lives of working-class Black men and women, highlighting a “hidden transcript” of expression and resistance in things like music, language, dance, and choice of dress.  He elevates the political potential found in these cultural elements, urging historians to see these “style politics” in the social and economic contexts which give rise to them, for they are powerful and worthy…

From the list:

The best history books on culture’s role in shaping race, class, and gender in modern America

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Book cover of The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

By Cynthia Levinson, Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Why this book?

In May 1963, three thousand African American children allowed themselves to be arrested in Birmingham, Alabama to protest segregation. The youngest, Audrey Faye Hendricks, was an elementary school student. This picture book biography tells the story of how she came to march with a bunch of high schoolers and about the bravery she had to summon up for her stay in jail.

From the list:

The best children’s books for young activists

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Book cover of Killers of the Dream

Killers of the Dream

By Lillian Smith

Why this book?

This autobiography of white Civil Rights activist Lillian Smith unpacks the society that shaped her as she struggled against her childhood lessons about how to interact with Whites and Blacks in the South. Smith deftly immerses you into her world with anecdotes, leading the reader through the interactions that shaped her and other white children across the South, including her experiences with racial violence and racism. Despite being written more than half a century ago, connections remain to our world. My recommendation is to read the 1994 version with an updated introduction placing the work into context.
From the list:

The best books for understanding racial violence in the South after the Civil War

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Book cover of Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler

Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler

By Ibi Zoboi

Why this book?

My love affair with Octavia Butler began early when I encountered her short story collection, Bloodchild, in college. I was so taken with the questions she was asking about the nature of being human, our seemingly innate need to form a hierarchy and dominate others, and possibilities for freedom and transformation. The best part was that she did it all through a sci-fi lens...one that she infused with a distinctly Black feminist perspective. I had never read anything like it. And now, we finally have a biography for young people (and really for everyone) about her life, her mind,…

From the list:

The best YA and MG books about the Black experience

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