Top 10 books for Black History month
From Martin Luther King Jr to black power, these books on the US civil rights struggle show how relevant the issues still are
The US civil rights movement is a perennially popular topic that has spawned a massive body of literature.
1. King: A Critical Biography by David L Lewis
Of the many worthy contenders to choose from, I particularly like Lewis’s 1970 biography of Martin Luther King, because it was one of the first to take on the task after King’s assassination in 1968. While sympathetic to King, the book is not afraid to point to his shortcomings. Revealingly – and perhaps a reflection of King’s acceptance into the pantheon of American heroes – subsequent editions have dropped the word “critical” from the title.
2. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby
For many years, women’s roles in the civil rights movement were neglected. Ransby’s study charts the remarkable life of activist Ella Baker, who played an influential organising and leadership role over many decades and helped establish the foundations for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ransby offers a fascinating portrait of one of the movement’s forgotten true heroes.
3. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio
Rustin is another previously overlooked figure. Gay, pacifist, communist and Quaker, Bayard Rustin was largely kept out of view so as not to attract unwelcome publicity. He was pivotal in organising the 1963 March on Washington and he was a close advisor to King on nonviolence. D’Emilio’s gender studies perspective broaches the touchy subject of sexuality in civil rights studies.
4. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson
In the 1960s, many organisations contributed to the success of the civil rights movement. Few were as influential as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”). A youth-based movement, SNCC led daring direct action protests such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and freedom rides. Carson, a former SNCC member and now the director of the Martin Luther King Jr Papers project, skillfully offers scholarly insight combined with first-hand experience.
5. Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom by William H Chafe
Chafe’s book was one of the first to examine the civil rights movement from a “bottom up” grassroots perspective. He places the protests that launched the 1960 sit-in movement in a much broader context and a longer history of black activism. This was the first book I read as a graduate student, and it provided a model and inspiration for my own PhD thesis, which took the Little Rock school integration crisis of 1957 as its point of departure.
6. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy by Mary L Dudziak
In recent years, historians have begun to examine the civil rights movement within the context of international relations. Dudziak shows that the cold war made the US far more conscious of how it treated people of colour at home as it competed with the Soviet Union to win non-white hearts and minds abroad. Her book charts new territory in exploring international dimensions that shaped the movement – and how the movement shaped international relations.
7. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality by Richard Kluger
The struggle for desegregation in education preceded and outlasted the civil rights movement’s heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Kluger charts the legal struggle by the NAACP, the US’s oldest civil rights organisation, which led to the landmark Brown school desegregation decision in 1954. The history of the Brown decision reminds us that the movement was built on decades of previous black activism. Kluger’s talent is to focus on the human story and drama in the midst of describing complex courtroom proceedings.
We often think of the civil rights movement as a distinct episode in the history of the US south. More recent studies like Sugrue’s have shown that discrimination against African Americans existed nationwide, as did African American struggles to overcome it. His book not only challenges us to reconsider the chronology of the movement beyond the 1950s and 1960s, but also shifts its geographic coordinates to marshal an enormous wealth of research and an impressively diverse range of events.
The civil rights movement changed US politics and society, but its cultural impact was just as important. Ward’s provocative study argues that black music did not just absorb influences but that it profoundly shaped the movement – from the artists and the venues they played, to the music industry and the role of African American-oriented radio. The author’s exhaustive research turns up some fascinating episodes that reveal just how profound the movement’s impact on popular culture was.
10. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America by Peniel E Joseph
Was the black power movement part of the civil rights movement, or something separate? Joseph, a leading figure in the new black power studies, makes the case for its singularity in the most comprehensive overview of the topic published to date. Rather than seeing black power as a series of unconnected iconic episodes and images – Black Panthers toting guns, the clenched fist salutes at the 1968 Olympics, Angela Davis‘s loud and proud Afro – Joseph presents a picture of a coherent movement with its own distinct politics and sensibilities.