In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we wanted to compile a list of books, documentaries, movies and albums either from or about the Civil Rights Movement.
At first, we intended to limit it to 10, but that cap made for a superficial list. We increased the total to 15, but that still excluded too many favorites.
We eventually realized that we could stretch the list to 100, and it still wouldn’t include everything we considered recommended reading, viewing and listening. So this list is admittedly incomplete; or, rather, it’s far from exhaustive, and we preemptively apologize if we failed to include a personal favorite.
If anything, we hope this list introduces you to something new or reminds you of something important.
One final caveat: There has been more than one Civil Rights Movement in America and hundreds more across this planet. This list focuses on black Americans’ fight for freedom and equality in their country. To try to include every Civil Rights Movement would be casting a web too wide for a single post.
However, this won’t be the only list of its kind. The story of any people who are striving for justice and equality matters.
The holiday is named after the man. We might as well begin with Martin Luther King Jr.
His most moving words are all here: his Nobel Prize acceptance speech; his Christmas sermon on peace; “Why We Can’t Wait”; his final speech delivered on April 4, 1968; and, of course, “I Have a Dream.”
2. April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death and How It Changed America by Michael Eric Dyson
“I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Those were King’s words from his final speech the day he was murdered. Dyson uses the fortieth anniversary of King’s assassination as a starting point for a comprehensive reevaluation of the fate of America, specifically Black America, over the ensuing years. He investigates the ways in which we as a people have made it to the Promised Land that King spoke of. He also illuminates the ways we still have a long way to go. (April 4, 1968 can also be streamed as an audiobook via Hoopla.)
Both the PBS documentary and book do a masterful job of recapping the Civil Rights Movement from Brown v. Board of Education to the march from Selma to Montgomery—equally useful as an introduction and as a reminder.
Struggle is never far from Nina Simone’s music, whether it be the struggle of her race (“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” or “Mississippi Goddam”) or her sex (“Four Women” or “Pirate Jenny.”) Life is difficult. The only thing that seemed to come easy were the songs; and, even then, they are sometimes painful to listen to.
5. Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution by Diane McWhorter
McWhorter won the Pulitzer Prize fore her investigation of her hometown and segregationist family during a pivotal year in the Civil Rights movement.
King was not the only leader during the Civil Rights movement. Malcolm X’s leadership, vision and rhetoric still influences millions of people. To learn more about the man you can read his autobiography (which, in full disclosure, was primarily written by Alex Haley.) Malcolm Marable’s Malcolm: A Life of Reinvention also offers an interesting counterpoint to his autobiography, as well as more information on his marriage to Betty Shabazz. (It’s also available as an eBook on OverDrive.)
If you’d rather watch than read, Malcolm X is one of Spike Lee’s finest films.
7. If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks by Faith Ringgold
Ringgold may be better known for her story quilts, but she has also written and illustrated more than a dozen children’s books. If a Bus Could Talk is an excellent way to teach and talk to kids about Rosa Parks and Civil Rights.
8. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom by Peter Guralnick
Guralnick tells the story of how musicians—Spooner Oldham, Otis Redding, Booker T. Jones and more—cut across racial lines to make music that was both timely and timeless.
Speaking of sweet soul music, Gaye’s plaintive question is as pertinent now as it was in 1969. You might know the singles already (the title track, “Inner City Blues” and “Mercy, Mercy Me”) but this album rewards those who listen to it in its entirety.
10. Black Like Me
In a move that would be decidedly not politically correct by today’s standards, a white reporter temporarily darkened his skin during the height of the Civil Rights movement so he could see how black men were treated in the segregated south.
Eight-year-old Connie can’t eat her ice cream at Woolworth’s lunch counter. This book was written for third through fifth graders, but adults will appreciate its message too.
The worthy followup to Eyes on the Prize. This book tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement from people who were there, both the famous and the unknown.
13. Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge
This book uses modern photos and the historical mug shots of the black and white protesters who rode across the country together protesting segregation.
14. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
The Civil Rights Movement isn’t just the story of Malcolm and Martin and Medgar Evers. It isn’t just the story of the people who refused to leave their seats on the bus or at the lunch counter. It was (and is) the story of everyone who has been belittled because of their race or sex or some other attribute beyond their control.
Anne Moody writes about her childhood, growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and 1950s. Without embellishment or literary theatrics, she describes the risks her contemporaries faced for the sake of earning basic rights. And by telling her story, she tells all of our stories.
15. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fiction can be a powerful way to share a people’s struggle and few people used it more powerfully than Harper Lee. If you’ve already read To Kill a Mockingbird but it’s been awhile, read it again.