12 Stirring Books About the Civil Rights Movement

By Brandon Miller

These rousing accounts about the fight for equality in America remain as relevant as ever.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education to end segregation in U.S. public schools, sparking nationwide protests and kick-starting the modern-day Civil Rights Movement to ensure equality for all Americans.

As such, the following Civil Rights books are not just historical texts but powerful guides that lead us through our present-day social and political landscape — where, nearly 70 years after the Brown vs. Board decision, we’re still fighting for a just society. 

Some of the acclaimed narratives below have won prestigious awards, while others were written by iconic Civil Rights leaders. Every one of them deserves to be read.

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live

By Paul Kix

In You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live, journalist Paul Kix chronicles a pivotal moment from the Civil Rights era that, until now, has never before been fully told. The new nonfiction narrative centers on Project C, the 10-week campaign in 1963 helmed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. At the forefront of the struggle were four outstanding Civil Rights leaders: Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King, Jr. With gripping prose and a novelistic flair, Kix brings this historic moment to life, ushering us through the campaign and into the minds of the legendary men who led the fight. “An eloquent contribution to the literature of civil rights and the ceaseless struggle to attain them” (Kirkus, starred review), You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live is not to be missed.

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

By David Garrow

David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. It’s widely considered to be one of the most comprehensive books about Martin Luther King, Jr., and it’s a must-read for any Civil Rights history buff. Garrow conducted more than 700 interviews and combed through thousands of FBI documents and King’s personal papers to produce this comprehensive biography. It is, in a way, an impassioned literary monument to the man who sacrificed everything in the pursuit of equality.

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

By John Lewis

If you’re at all familiar with the Civil Rights Movement, then you know John Lewis, the key organizer and activist who later served 17 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Walking with the Wind is Lewis’s award-winning and bestselling memoir of life on the front lines of the movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. Lewis was arrested dozens of times as a result of his activities as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and he was one of two men who led marchers across the bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday.” Here, he vividly recounts his role in the movement and his lifelong commitment to justice and change.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

By Les Payne

Published in 2020, The Dead Are Arising won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and for good reason: Author Les Payne dedicated nearly 30 years of his life to produce his extraordinary portrait of Malcolm X. The investigative journalist conducted hundreds of hours of interviews to prepare this book, endeavoring to speak to anyone who actually knew his subject, from siblings and classmates to political leaders and FBI moles. The end result is a staggering historical biography that spans Malcolm X’s birth in Nebraska in 1925 to his assassination in 1965 and rewrites much of what we thought we knew about the organizer, activist, and Black liberation leader.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

By Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is sure to provide additional insight into the firebrand leader who helped shape the fight for racial justice in America while also, at times, standing in stark opposition to the nonviolent principles espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Civil Rights Movement. Named one of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th  century, the narrative details Malcolm X’s radical transformation and chronicles the evolution of the Black Muslim movement. Though originally published in 1964, the book’s unflinching examination of systemic discrimination and the many ways people of color are denied access to the American dream resonates loudly with the inequities of the present day.

Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965

By Juan Williams

Award-winning journalist Juan Williams’s Eyes on the Prize is an acclaimed Civil Rights book that serves as a companion volume to the PBS series of the same name. The richly illustrated narrative spans from Brown vs. Board of Education to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It captures the work of icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as lesser-known leaders like student activist Barbara Rose Johns, minister and Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg, and so many other unsung heroes who stepped up to join the fight against inequality and discrimination

Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s Through the 1980s

By Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer

Voices of Freedom is a bit different from the other Civil Rights books on our list, in that it doesn’t just cover the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s but stretches all the way through the 1980s. Written by Henry Hampton, the creator of the PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize, and Steve Fayer, a writer from the series, the book draws on hundreds of interviews with activists, politicians, journalists, government workers, and witnesses to deliver its stirring account. The result is a monumental oral history that amplifies a chorus of voices involved in the continuing push for equality.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Stanford historian and editor Clayborne Carson draws on MLK’s vast body of written work to create a multifaceted portrait of the inspirational Civil Rights leader. The book covers everything you want it to — from King’s formative years and his evolving political philosophies to his candid views on political and cultural figures, all written in his own voice. It also traces the victories and setbacks of the Civil Rights struggle from King’s own perspective. Intimate and profound, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. offers a “fascinating, often insightful look at one of the greatest Americans” (Milwaukee Journal).

Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America

By Keisha N. Blain

While a few women receive recognition for their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, much of the Civil Rights literature out there focuses on male leaders and changemakers. That’s one of the many reasons why we love Until I Am Free, which tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, an influential female activist who too often gets overlooked. Historian and author Keisha N. Blain champions Hamer as a key player in the movement while at the same time highlighting her unique perspective as a disabled Black woman living in poverty in Mississippi. “Readers will walk away both informed and inspired” by this “poignant study of the life and influence of a civil rights legend” (Kirkus, starred review).

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

By Taylor Branch

Parting the Waters is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book and an essential entry in the canon of Civil Rights literature. Written by Taylor Branch, it’s the first in a sweeping three-part series that documents the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., the evolution of the Civil Rights Movement, and America on the precipice of change. In the first book, Branch traces MLK’s formative years up to his ascent as a Civil Rights leader and icon.

Call Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

By Diane McWhorter

In this Pulitzer Prize–winning book, longtime New York Times contributor Diane McWhorter delivers an eye-opening account of the Civil Rights Movement’s chaotic “Year of Birmingham” in 1963. The author draws on police records, archival documents, and interviews with both activists and Ku Klux Klan members to capture the calamity of the moment, detailing the crackdowns, bombings, and bursts of violence. McWhorter also puts much of herself into Call Me Home, interweaving her personal memories as a member of an eminent Birmingham family.

Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919–1950

By Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore

We conclude our list with Defying Dixie, a gorgeously written Civil Rights book by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a Yale University professor specializing in History, African American Studies, and American Studies. The text, which was named an American Library Association Notable Book, focuses not on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s but on the decades that led up to the movement and precipitated the need for change. Gilmore paints an evocative picture of the twisted legal issues and entrenched discrimination that defined the early 20th century. She also brings to life the many writers, radicals, and Southern activists who led the fight for social justice in the 1920s through the 1940s and paved the way for the revolutionaries to come.

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