The Essential Civil Rights Reading List

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, what should you be reading? Columbia professor Samuel G. Freedman offers his list of classic books on the civil-rights movement. Plus, read an excerpt from his new book, Breaking the Line.

Left: AP

When the sculptor Lei Yixin recently removed a condensed and altered quotation from his monument to Martin Luther King Jr., his action attested to the power of words in the civil-rights movement. Not coincidentally, the outraged reaction to that editing of King’s “drum major” speech was led by a writer, Maya Angelou.

Certainly, the civil-rights era supplied memorable tableaux of physical courage: the child protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, braving water hoses and police dogs, the marchers at Selma striding straight into the horses and clubs of a law-enforcement mob. But, decades later, the words still echo. This year marks the 50th anniversary of two of the most enduring expressions of the quest for racial equality: King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Given the centrality of language to the movement, then, it is only natural that the civil-rights narrative has inspired so many books, and some of those volumes form the literary version of monuments. I’m thinking here of Taylor Branch’s trilogy, David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, and Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home. All have been celebrated and honored; all are known to many readers of history and narrative nonfiction.

In my own various guises—as an avid recreational reader, as a professor teaching about nonfiction literature, and as an author who has written about black colleges and black Christianity in two of my books—I’ve been transported and transformed by those masterpieces. But I’ve also had the occasion to read an array of other accounts of the civil-rights struggle, from theology to biography to fiction to young-adult novels. In doing so, I have developed an additional list of essential books, ones that deserve a much wider audience than they already possess.

The process of enshrining King as a consensus national hero has unfortunately entailed some cosmetic surgery on the actual man. To please secular liberals, the pivotal role of Christianity in King’s life has been downplayed, as if it were just a minor detail that he was a minister who held rallies in churches. To appeal to conservatives, King’s radicalism on economic and Cold War issues, as well as on racial justice, has been elided in favor of presenting him as the advocate of a color-blind society.

Two of my selected books correct much of this distorted record. In Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America, Nick Kotz depicts the pragmatic, politically savvy side of King in his alliance with LBJ. Focusing on a narrow piece of time—from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 to King’s in April 1968—Kotz shows how King and Johnson adroitly partnered in generating both the public demand and the congressional votes for landmark civil-rights legislation. Kotz’s portrait of these hard-won triumphs makes it all the more wrenching when, toward his narrative’s end, King and Johnson bitterly break over the Vietnam War.

Anyone who accepts the image of King as the suffering servant, the compliant moderate, needs to read James Cone’s Malcolm & Martin & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. The leading figure in African-American liberation theology, Cone positions King and Malcolm X not as opposites—the integrationist and the separatist, the conciliator and the firebrand—but as the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. He identifies the righteous anger in King, the part of him inspired by the Old Testament prophets of social justice and by an interpretation of Jesus as champion of the oppressed. Though King and Malcolm X met only once, Cones demonstrates how they understood and utilized their synergy.

The freedom movement only succeeded, though, because it penetrated from leaders all the way down to the everyday reality of ordinary people. To my mind, no work of nonfiction better captures that truth than Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. While Guralnick is best known for his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, he made his name writing about the lesser-known mainstays of rockabilly, blues, and soul. Here he delivers a vivid and moving portrait of black and white musicians who had been reared amid rigid segregation—Otis Redding, Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, among them—who came together transgressively in Memphis and Muscle Shoals recording studios to create popular art across racial lines. Still, this book is no simple panegyric; Guralnick keeps a clear, acute eye on the tensions that persistently threaten to undo the transracial teamwork.

Tensions both physical and psychic inform Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas, which may well be the finest novel about the civil-rights era. With all due respect to Ernest J. Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman takes an episodic, biopic approach to black history, embodying it in a single woman who conveniently lives for a century. Nicholas, instead, telescopes her story into the three months of 1964’s “Freedom Summer” and the flyspeck hamlet of Pineyville, Mississippi. Into it comes Celeste Tyree, a child of the black middle class from Detroit and the University of Michigan. Celeste is fully aware of her mixed motives—selfless idealism on the one hand, a selfish desire to build her racial credentials on the other—and she is shocked by both the white violence all around and the frightened timidity of many of Pineyville’s blacks. Perhaps Nicholas’s experience as an actress (Room 222, In The Heat of the Night) is what endowed her writing with its deep understanding of plot and character. Whatever the source of her talents, in my reading experience, few books have so artfully entwined a coming-of-age saga with the awakening of moral conscience.

The novel I would place next to Freshwater Road on a shelf for civil-rights fiction was nominally written for young adults: The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. But I think of Curtis as the August Wilson of children’s literature; his trilogy about black life in Flint, Michigan, recalls the scope and insight of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of plays, all but one set in his native Pittsburgh. Watsons, the middle volume of Curtis’s Flint novels, is set during the auto industry’s heyday and concerns a black family who has ridden that wave into the middle class. For the first several chapters, the novel reads almost like an early Bill Cosby stand-up routine, rich with sibling rivalry and parental exasperation. But as the Watsons leave Flint to visit grandparents in Alabama, crossing into a South where no motel is open to them, Curtis’s serious intent marbles the story. Anyone who recalls what happened in Birmingham 50 years ago this summer will intuit what the Watsons encounter at the end of their road trip.

Any list like this one winds up omitting other worthy titles: The Temple Bombing by Melissa Fay Greene, Gospel of Freedom by Jonathan Rieder, Like a Holy Crusade by Nicolaus Mills. For a one-volume anthology of King’s most famous writings and speeches, I’d recommend A Testament of Hope, edited by James M. Washington. In a reader’s tour of civil-rights literature, the journey only starts with the most famous titles.