The most recommended Civil Rights Movement books

Who picked these books? Meet our 92 experts.

92 authors created a book list connected to the Civil Rights Movement, and here are their favorite Civil Rights Movement books.
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Bearing the Cross

By David J. Garrow,

Book cover of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

Paul Harvey Author Of Martin Luther King: A Religious Life

From the list on Martin Luther King, Jr..

Who am I?

I have spent my entire academic career researching and teaching about American religious history, particularly focusing on issues of race and religion. I am the author of numerous works on this topic, including The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in American History (co-authored with Edward J. Blum), and Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography. Finally, after thirty years of work, I challenged myself to write a short reader-friendly biography of King that would capture him as fully as possible, but in a brief book that would communicate to general readers the full measure of the man.

Paul's book list on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why did Paul love this book?

Garrow’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography is the first complete, almost minute-by-minute, account of King’s life based on extensive research in the King documents, interviews with dozens of his associates, and a deep understanding of American history in that period. Garrow picks up the story just as King comes to Montgomery, and there are other books to read about the young King before 1954, but from there forward, Garrow’s is the indispensable account, and was the first book to really delve into the FBI’s surveillance of King.

By David J. Garrow,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bearing the Cross as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 7th annual Robert Kennedy Book Award, this biography of Martin Luther King, first published in 1986, portrays the struggles and conflicts within the man who became the incarnation of the civil rights movement in America. It is based on more than 700 interviews with King's associates and with the Southern law men who worked against him, and on the author's access to King's personal papers and thousands of pages of newly-released FBI documents relating to the most radical uprising in American history.

Book cover of The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin

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

From the 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

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…


By Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,

Book cover of Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

David Hardiman Author Of Gandhi in His Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of His Ideas

From the list on Mahatma Gandhi and his life.

Who am I?

I have for over fifty years studied and written about the Indian nationalist movement, examining it from many different angles. I lived and worked for many years in India. I have throughout had an appreciative but often troubled relationship with Gandhi – admiring him for much of what he stood for, while finding it hard to accept many of his beliefs and actions. This will be apparent to anyone reading the books that I have written. Despite this, I have a deep respect for a man who was undoubtedly a towering figure in twentieth-century history.   

David's book list on Mahatma Gandhi and his life

Why did David love this book?

Gandhi wrote this book, his autobiography, between 1925 and 1929, when he was in his late fifties. It focuses on his formative years, showing how he forged his distinctive style of activism in South Africa and India. It is remarkable for its honesty, even when Gandhi had shameful memories to relate, as when he struck his wife, Kasturba, in anger.  His aim is to show how he changed himself in ways that would make such violent behavior on his part impossible. His ‘truth’ is that of nonviolence and he describes the experiments that he undertook in establishing his nonviolence at both a personal and political level. It is a compelling read that brings out brilliantly Gandhi’s style of thinking and his personality. It is in my opinion a classic of twentieth-century literature. 

By Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Who was Gandhi? In the midst of resurging interest in the man who freed India, inspired the American Civil Rights Movement, and is revered, respected, and misunderstood all over the world, the time is proper to listen to Gandhi himself — in his own words, his own "confessions," his Autobiography.
Gandhi made scrupulous truth-telling a religion, and his Autobiography inevitably reminds one of other saints who have suffered and burned for their lapses. He gives a simply narrated account of his boyhood in Gujarat, marriage at age 13, legal studies in England, and a growing desire for purity and reform.…

Sistuhs in the Struggle

By La Donna Forsgren,

Book cover of Sistuhs in the Struggle: An Oral History of Black Arts Movement Theater and Performance

Jonathan Shandell Author Of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

From the list on Black culture and history in the Civil Rights era.

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.

Jonathan's book list on Black culture and history in the Civil Rights era

Why did Jonathan love this book?

We tend to think about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s as dominated by militant male voices. This book explores the rich contributions of black women artists to the movement—by amplifying the voices of women artists in their own words. The book is a collection of oral histories, drawing on dozens of interviews with influential Black women artists. Some of them are recognizable, like playwrights/poets Sonia Sanchez and Ntozake Shange. Others are less familiar names whose influence should be appreciated more fully. This is a rich celebration of the impact of women artists during a key period of African American cultural change.

By La Donna Forsgren,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The first oral history to fully explore the contributions of black women intellectuals to the Black Arts Movement, Sistuhs in the Struggle reclaims a vital yet under-researched chapter in African American, women's, and theater history. This groundbreaking study documents how black women theater artists and activists-many of whom worked behind the scenes as directors, designers, producers, stage managers, and artistic directors-disseminated the black aesthetic and emboldened their communities.

Drawing on nearly thirty original interviews with well-known artists such as Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez as well as less-studied figures including distinguished lighting designer Shirley Prendergast, dancer and choreographer Halifu Osumare,…

Klansville, U.S.A.

By David Cunningham,

Book cover of Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

Daniel Byman Author Of Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism

From the list on understanding white supremacy.

Who am I?

I first became interested in extremism and terrorism when I was young, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. As a student and then as an intelligence analyst, I became deeply immersed in terrorism emanating from the Middle East and later served with the 9/11 Commission. In the last decade, I focused on the white supremacist threat, motivated both by its growing lethality and its political impact during the Trump era and today. In this book, I share my insights on the movement’s modern history, global dimensions, presence on social media, and numerous vulnerabilities.

Daniel's book list on understanding white supremacy

Why did Daniel love this book?

To understand white supremacy today, it’s vital to understand how it changed from a set of ideas embedded in law as well as society to a fringe belief scorned by right-thinking people. Klansville, USA is set in the Civil Rights era deep inside the Klan in North Carolina, probably the most important state for the Klan at the time. Sociologist David Cunningham explains why the Klan was so strong in North Carolina and why it was weaker in many states where racism was also deeply entrenched. Cunningham shows how ordinary and embedded the Klan was in many parts of North Carolina and also reveals the tough, and incredibly effective, FBI campaign to crush the Klan, which included an array of dirty tricks against various Klan chapters that ultimately devastated many white supremacist organizations.

By David Cunningham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Klansville, U.S.A. as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1960s, on the heels of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and in the midst of the growing Civil Rights Movement, Ku Klux Klan activity boomed, reaching an intensity not seen since the 1920s, when the KKK boasted over 4 million members. Most surprisingly, the state with the largest Klan membership-more than the rest of the South combined-was North Carolina, a supposed bastion of southern-style progressivism.

Klansville, U.S.A. is the first substantial history of the civil rights-era KKK's astounding rise and fall, focusing on the under-explored case of the United Klans of America (UKA) in North Carolina.…

To Stand and Fight

By Martha Biondi,

Book cover of To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City

Clarence Taylor Author Of Fight the Power: African Americans and the Long History of Police Brutality in New York City

From the list on race and policing.

Who am I?

I am Professor Emeritus of History at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  I grew up in Brooklyn, New York during the turbulent decades of the 1950s and 1960s where there were numerous social protest movements against the War in Vietnam, school segregation, and police brutality.  My books explore the men and women who battled institutional racism.

Clarence's book list on race and policing

Why did Clarence love this book?

Biondi does not just examine the little-known history of police brutality against black New Yorkers. It is a history of how black New Yorkers, over decades, challenged abuse at the hands of “New York’s finest.” The black challenge to police brutality has been fierce, especially as New York City’s black communities grew. But the anti-police brutality campaign has also been extremely difficult.

By Martha Biondi,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The story of the civil rights movement typically begins with the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and culminates with the 1965 voting rights struggle in Selma. But as Martha Biondi shows, a grassroots struggle for racial equality in the urban North began a full ten years before the rise of the movement in the South. This story is an essential first chapter, not only to the southern movement that followed, but to the riots that erupted in northern and western cities just as the civil rights movement was achieving major victories.

Biondi tells the story of African Americans who mobilized…

Voice of Deliverance

By Keith D. Miller,

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 the 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

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

Keisha N. Blain Author Of Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America

From the list on Black women in the Civil Rights Movement.

Who am I?

I first learned about Fannie Lou Hamer more than a decade ago, and I have been deeply inspired by her life story and her words. I didn’t initially think I would write a book about her. But the uprisings of 2020 motivated me to do so. Like so many people, I struggled to make sense of everything that was unfolding, and I began to question whether change was possible. The more I read Hamer’s words, the more clarity I found. Her vision for the world and her commitment to improving conditions for all people gave me a renewed sense of hope and purpose.

Keisha's book list on Black women in the Civil Rights Movement

Why did Keisha love this book?

This is a book that inspired me as a historian and in my approach to activism. Barbara Ransby’s biography of Ella Baker excavates the activist’s life, placing the reader at the nexus of some of the most important moments in civil rights history. Ella Baker’s life also provides a blueprint for local activism and group-centered leadership. It’s a compelling story of how Ella Baker became a mentor, inspiring, listening to, and supporting local activists. 

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…

Spheres of Influence

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Book cover of Spheres of Influence: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality: The Social Ecology of Racial and Class Inequality

Douglas S. Massey Author Of American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass

From the list on how neighborhoods perpetuate 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.

Douglas' book list on how neighborhoods perpetuate inequality

Why did Douglas love this book?

In addition to neighborhoods, Americans also experience rampant inequalities across other social settings such as families, schools, and peer networks. These settings define the ecological context within which humans develop and each “sphere of influence” determines the development trajectories of people as the move from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. This book examines how each of these spheres affects human development at different stages of the life course among White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian young people in the United States to produce the racial and class inequalities that characterize contemporary American society.

By Douglas S. Massey, Stefanie Brodmann,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The black-white divide has long haunted the United States as a driving force behind social inequality. Yet, the civil rights movement, the increase in immigration, and the restructuring of the economy in favor of the rich over the last several decades have begun to alter the contours of inequality. Spheres of Influence, co-authored by noted social scientists Douglas S. Massey and Stefanie Brodmann, presents a rigorous new study of the intersections of racial and class disparities today. Massey and Brodmann argue that despite the persistence of potent racial inequality, class effects are drastically transforming social stratification in America. This data-intensive…

Book cover of In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose

Anna Malaika Tubbs Author Of The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation

From the list on Black motherhood.

Who am I?

Anna Malaika Tubbs is the author of the critically acclaimed book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of MLK Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. She is also a Cambridge Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and a Bill and Melinda Gates Cambridge Scholar. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with a BA in Anthropology, Anna received a Master’s from the University of Cambridge in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies. Outside of the academy, she is an educator and DEI consultant. She lives with her husband, Michael Tubbs, and their son Michael Malakai.

Anna's book list on Black motherhood

Why did Anna love this book?

This anthology of some of Walker’s most powerful works with a focus on discovering ourselves through studying those who came before us is both incredibly informative and emotional. It explores motherhood not only through the biological role but also in a sense of community mothering and foremothers. There is much to learn about our present by examining lessons laid out for us by generations past.

By Alice Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Color Purple, Alice Walker's collection of essays ranging in topics from personal to political. "Thoughtful, intelligent, resonant musings." — Kirkus Reviews

In this, her first collection of nonfiction, Alice Walker speaks out as a black woman, writer, mother, and feminist. Among the thirty-six pieces are essays about other writers, accounts of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s, and a vivid memoir of a scarring childhood injury and her daughter’s healing words.