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Chronicles of the movement: the greatest hits among the important books that have shaped the record of America's civil rights struggles.

What will future generations know about the great mass movement for racial equality that came to a head in the middle of the 20th century? What books will stand as the central canon for understanding this passage in our nation's history? Where will tomorrow's scholars begin their research? As part of our reflection on the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Shatema Threadcraft, who teaches at Villanova University, surveyed the literature of the entire Civil Rights Movement.


Finally an answer to the question, "Where do I start?"

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch, Simon & Schuster (reprint edition), November 1989, ISBN 0-671-68742-5

While not technically a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Parting the Waters is a good place to get a start on picturing the Man in the Movement. This Pulitzer Prize and National Book Circle Award winner is one of the most compelling books I have ever read.

The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change by Aldon D. Morris, Free Press September 1986, ISBN 0-029-22130-7

Morris begins his book with the Baton Rouge Boycott of 1953 in his examination of the causes of the Civil Rights Movement. Origins covers the first decade of the Civil Rights Movement, defined as the time when "large masses of black people became directly involved in economic boycotts, street marches, [and] mass meetings...." Morris advances his theories on a variety of questions that are necessary for both the neophyte's and the expert's inquiry into the movement, including how it was financed, what its strategies were, what exactly was the mix of spontaneity and intense organization in the movement's famous campaigns.

Freedom on My Mind: The Columbia Documentary History of the African American Experience Edited by Manning Marable Columbia University Press, July 2003 ISBN 0-231-10890-7

Everything didn't happen in the 1960s. From Sojourner Truth to Angela Davis to essays, poems, sermons and speeches on African Americans' search for freedom in the United States are included in this book of more than 700 pages. The chapters are divided into different issues such as "Women and Gender" and "Work, Labor" as "freedom" steed for many things in the African American imagination.


Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights by Genna Rae McNeil, University of Pennsylvania Press (reprint edition), March 1985, ISBN 0-812-21179-0

For Charles Hamilton Houston, law was the institution in American democracy that had the most room for play when it came to winning the rights of black people. McNeil, in a biography that details Houston's work far mere than the minutia of his life, focuses on the questions the architect of the Brown v. Board of Education litigation strategy felt compelled to answer in his lifetime. The book also details how Houston endeavored to turn Howard lawyers into socially conscious social engineers.

Simple Justice by Richard Kluger Vintage, January 1977, ISBN 0-394-72255-8

If Houston is the man who saw the way, then the book Simple Justice details the way itself. It is a history of how the five cases that came to be known as "Brown" were argued and how the cases were decided. This account is written in three parts. The first deals with race in America, the second addresses the legal strategy, and the third part examines how the Supreme Court came to its decision.

Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary by Juan Williams Three Rivers Press, February 2000 ISBN 0-812-93299-4

In contrast to McNeil's book, American Revolutionary focuses on the extraordinary and extremely interesting life of Thurgood Marshall, whose story reached an astronomical plateau he sustained throughout his life with the Brown case. The book contains some interesting antics from his college years and early time in Harlem on through his decision to work for black people through the law.

In the Matter of Color: Race and the Legal Process: The Colonial Period by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., Oxford University Press May 1980 ISBN 0-195-02745-0

The potential for amelioration Charles Houston saw in the legal process was not a given; the law had often functioned for the expressed purpose of oppressing blacks. Judge A. Leon Higginbotham chronicles the arguments used against equality in the development of the American legal method in the centuries before Brown. This first of two volumes focuses on the legal history of six colonies, including Georgia, Massachusetts and New York.

Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography by Constance Baker Motley, Farrar Straus & Giroux, September 1999 ISBN 0-374-52618-4

Born as it was to carry the weight of Brown for us, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) certainly got off on the right foot. Constance Baker Morley details her career as the only female lawyer at the LDF during the exciting civil rights years. She went on to become the first black female New York State senator and Manhattan borough president, and she currently holds a seat on Manhattan's district court.


History has only recently begun to move away from the story of great men to the discipline's benefit to be sure. Still, activists' biographies paint another picture of the Civil Rights Movement, one that can help to personalize the broad historical accounts. The most obvious path to take when you decide to begin this journey is with the people in concentric circles around Martin Luther King Jr. Hero worship was not a requirement of our greatest heroes, as the biographies of Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin prove. These two books provide a glimpse into the work of those on the margins of civil rights memory, but at the center of some of its best works.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby, University of North Carolina Press; April 2003 ISBN 0-807-82778-9 (See Black Issues Book Review, September-October 2003 BIBLIOMANE, for related article.)

Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D'Emilio, The Free Press, August 2003, ISBN 0-684-82780-8 Rustin, organizer of the March on washing ton, the consummate activist, perhaps among the first to protest the treatment of black people on the continents, lived a bittersweet life. It's a must that those interested in the Civil Rights Movement know his story. (See BIBR, January-February 2004, NONFICTION REVIEWS.)

The Life of Langston Hughes: I, Too, Sing America, Vol. 1: 1902-1941 by Arnold Rampersad, Oxford Press (2nd edition), January 2002 ISBN 0-195-14642-5; The Life of Langston Hughes: I Dream a World, Vol. 2: 1941-1967 Oxford Press (2nd edition), February 2002 ISBN 0-195-15161-5

Now that you've heard it at every Black History Program since you've been a conscious being, you may have forgotten the feeling you experienced the first time you heard "Dream Deferred," when you realized that you were black and that it was going to be a really long road. Then you looked around, saw your friends in various stages of the same realization, and your elders around you stared ahead with peace and quiet resignation and you felt better. Take some time out and discover what went into the making of one of our greatest poets.

W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 by David Levering Lewis, Henry Holt & Company, Inc. December 1994, ISBN 0-805-03568-0

This Pulitzer Prize winning book is a complex account of our most famous intellectual, a prophet who defined the problem of the next several centuries. Lewis gives much attention to the intellectual product of Dr. Du Bois, a fitting tribute to a man so devoted to thought and to black people.

Here I Stand by Paul Robeson, Beacon Press, January 1998, ISBN 0-807-06445-9

Da Vinci certainly had his accomplishments, but it is Paul Robeson I think of when I hear the phrase Renaissance man. Lawyer thespian, athlete, balladeer, activist, true cosmopolitan--these are descriptives that only begin to scratch the surface of this amazing man. His story is a pitiful one, really, about the sad attempt of racism to suppress genius. Revel in the life of Mr. Robeson and learn how to truly live. "In the pages which follow I do not tell the story of my life since childhood, because that is not the purpose of this book ... I have sought to present my ideas about a subject that is infinitely more important than any personal story--the struggle of my people for freedom."

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, Harvest Books, October 1999, ISBN 0-156-00708-8

There comes a point in your life when you realize that belief in anything requires a certain amount of innocence. The Freedom Rides were a moving testament to the conviction of the riders, a story that chokes me up every time I hear it. The young John Lewis, perhaps the most famous of the riders, was the most earnest disciple of the tenants of nonviolence to whom I have ever been exposed. You would do wall to read the biography of this Alabama-born minister and Georgia congressman.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma by Charles V. Hamilton, Cooper Square Press, February 2002, ISBN 0-815-41184-7

The Civil Rights Movement is a largely Southern bride in our collective memory. Yet Harlem's colorful congressman did a great deal to combat Northern racism, especially in the field of employment. Powell also represents a new character in the great man battalion. For all those weary of the moral man, the angry man and the intellectual, Powell offers a peek at the cunning man. Hamilton gives the reader a chance to live in Powell's New York and, really, it would be anybody's kind of town.

Alex Haley and Malcolm X's The Autobiography of Malcolm X Edited by Harold Bloom Chelsea House Publishing January 1999 ISBN 0-791-04111-5

Let him inspire more than your fashion sense. Take a look at the autobiography of the brilliant orator, the ex-con who ran circles around panels of Ph.Ds before television audiences, the man who forced white America to consciously take black response to racism to its logical conclusion.

Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America by Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, Vintage (reissue edition) November 1992, ISBN 0-679-74313-8

Ture proves that passion and intelligence can coexist in academic thought. Not only is it a phenomenal specimen of Black Power rhetoric, it also an account of the issues those with raised fists had with the more mainstream activists, integration and American racism. "The concepts of Black Power speak to all the needs mentioned in this chapter. It is a call for Black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society."

Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson University of North Carolina Press February 2001, ISBN 0-807-84923-5

This is the story of Robert F. Williams, his uncharacteristically militant North Carolina NAACP chapter, his KKK-enforced Cuban exile, his Cuban-based radio program that made it to our shores--Radio Free Dixie, representing the best of music and politics.


I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne, University of California Press, November 1996, ISBN 0-520-20706-8

Much of what we remember about the Civil Rights Movement is about the short-term effective campaigns to integrate lunch counters. The approach the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took in Mississippi was different and extremely influential to community organizing in our time. The soft-spoken Bob Moses, an inspiring pacifist and a man whose commitment to the struggle is humbling, and other members of SNCC moved to Mississippi and lived with the people they proposed to register to vote. Thus their work took on a different character than that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACE Historian Charles Payne chronicles the struggle for freedom in Mississippi, and his book does well in chronicling the sacrifice of Mississippi's permanent population as well.

Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Blacks in the New World) by John Dittmer University of Illinois Press July 1995, ISBN 0-252-06507-7

We understand now that the movement happened because of the people we never hear about. In this book on the Mississippi straggle, Dittmer gives time to the voiceless in the belly of the beast of Southern racism. Dittmer's radical thesis--that the big names were rather peripheral is a thesis to which all students of the movement should be exposed.

In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s by Clayborne Carson, Harvard University Press, (reprint edition) June 1995 ISBN 0-674-44727-1

Carson presents a thorough account of the ever-mobile and innovative members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Coalition that gave youthful energy to the Civil Rights Movement, and how they were able to thwart the Kennedy Administration at every turn. It is told in three parts, and the third section deals with the legacy of Stokely Carmichael's and H. Rap Brown's tenures as chairmen of SNCC.

Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin, New York University Press August 2001, ISBN 0-814-71603-2

Women are no longer left out of the history of the Civil Rights Movement. This collection of essays has much to offer, from the firsthand accounts of recognizable figures, including Charlayne Hunter Gault's lyrical story of her struggle to integrate the University of Georgia, to star female historians Barbara Ransby on Ella Baker, and Farah Jasmine Griffin on Malcolm X, to Jacqueline A. Rouse's appropriately titled piece "We Seek to Know ... in Order to Speak the Truth," on Septima Clark's innovative combination of practical literacy and political education in the creation of unexpected community leaders. This book is a valuable addition to any collection.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts From the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990 by Clayborne Carson Penguin USA (reprint edition) November 1991, ISBN 0-140-15403-5

The volume accompanied the famed PBS documentary and provides excellent primary source material on the movement, including court cases, speeches and firsthand accounts.

Reporting Civil Rights: Part One, American Journalism 1941-1963 (The Library of America, 137-138) by David J. Garrow, et al, Library of America, January 2003, ISBN 1-931-08228-6

No history of the Civil Rights Movement is complete without giving consideration to the journalists who brought the picture home to suburban America. Coverage includes the Birmingham church bombing and a piece on Malcolm X's sprit with the Nation of Islam. Contributors include James Baldwin, Jimmy Breslin, Robert Coles, Joan Didion, Ralph Ellison, Gordon Parks, Tom Wolfe and Howard Zinn.

Shatema Threadcraft is a philosophy Ph.D. candidate at Villanova University. She is the director of Villanova's New Foundations Network, a minority retention program.
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Title Annotation:bibliomane
Author:Threadcraft, Shatema
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:May 1, 2004
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