5 Classic Books About the Civil Rights Movement

150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

50 years ago, Democratic Governor George Wallace of Alabama stated in his 1963 inaugural speech that there would be  “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Monday, an African-American man, Barack Obama, will become the president of the U.S. for a second consecutive term.

These are, in the words of historian Taylor Branch, “epic anniversaries in the unfinished history of freedom.” In honor of what has been achieved in this struggle, and of Martin Luther King Day, here are five classic works about the civil rights movement.

1. America in the King Years

Branch’s America in the King Years trilogy starts in 1954 with the book “Parting the Waters,” which details the beginning of the civil rights movement and the work of a number of young black leaders. The second volume, “Pillar of Fire,” focuses on 1963-1965, when the civil rights era was at its height and a movement that began in Southern black churches became a national issue during the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy. The final book, “At Canaan’s Edge,” makes a case for King’s place in the “pantheon of American history” alongside James Madison and Abraham Lincoln.

2. Carry Me Home – Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution

Diane McWhorter’s 2001 book won the Pulitzer Prize for its account of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Born into one of the city’s white elite families, McWhorter was about the same age as the four black girls killed on September 15, 1963, at the 16th street church in Birmingham. It was only after leaving the South as an adult that she started to wonder what part her father (who described her family as “Klan minus” — sympathetic but not participants in acts of violence) might have played in the city’s “violent resistance to integration.” Using law-enforcement reports, archives, memoirs, personal papers and her own interviews, McWhorter uncovered and examined “the long tradition of enmeshment between law enforcers and Klansmen,” as well Birmingham’s anti-labor-union industrialists.

3. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X was widely hailed even before its publication in 2011. The product of ten years of work, historian and social critic Marable’s book offers a counterweight to Malcolm X’s 1965 autobiography written with Alex Haley. In particular, Manning presents a revisionist view of Malcolm X (including more details of his relationship with his wife, Betty Shabazz), his politics, religious beliefs, his role in the civil rights movement and his breaking with the Nation of Islam and the circumstances (including the F.B.I.’s uncertainty as to how to deal with him) leading to his 1965 assassination.

4. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

In her 2010 account of  the 55-year-long migration of some six million African-Americans all across the U.S., Isabel Wilkerson documents the “leap of faith” that enabled them to “find freedom under the Warmth of Other Suns.” Those who left the South are, she writes, more analogous to refugees then migrants, retaining ties to family and old friends and to the communities they left behind. The former Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,200 people for her book, which focuses on the story of three (a sharecropper’s wife, a campaigner for workers’ rights, a doctor) who left the rural South and, in many ways, exchanged one set of troubles for another, setting the stage for the civil rights era.

5. Letter From a Birmingham Jail

King’s letter (included in his 1964 book “Why We Can’t Wait”) calls to be read and reread for its articulation of what have become fundamental tenets of civil rights and freedom for activists everywhere:

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. …

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

Much remains to be done to write the rest of the history of freedom in the U.S. and around the world. The stories and struggles of King and of so many others inspire and enjoin us to keep fighting that good fight for progress, freedom and justice.


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Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Lynn D.
Lynn D4 years ago


Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W4 years ago

thank you

Kim C.
Kim C.4 years ago

Fantastic collection...

Vicky H.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thank you.

Shanti S.
S S4 years ago

Thank you.

Ben Oscarsito
Ben O4 years ago

Thanks, 5 more books to read...

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y4 years ago

fyi photo: Sargent Shriver to the left, Dr. King left foreground and tall guy on right is Malcom X. Three icons of the movement, meeting briefly before official press conference (on video) outside Senate chambers after Civil Rights Act debate March 1964.

Lynda Duke
Lynda Duke4 years ago

One of the exceptionally foolish supporters for the NRA said something like " Dr King would appreciate Gun Appreciation Day!" But I had to point out....that I don't think Dr King would have supported such a theory - because he was murdered - with a gun.

He was a minister, a great oratorial speaker against VIOLENCE! And to know that President Obama uses Dr King as an example and motivator for his work, just thrills me to no end.

Don Lukenbill
Don L4 years ago

"Eyes on the Prize" by Juan Williams is an excellent read. Yeas, I know he jumped ship to Fox, but that does not devalue this work.

Rolland Nadjiwon
Rolland Nadjiwon4 years ago

Incredibly good and incredibly bad times....