Link: A Presidents' Day reading list.
New Nonfiction (with commentary): 29 February 2016

What's a Good Book on...Civil Rights?

A while back I had this idea that I would work on some book lists with some "good" books on a variety of topics. I didn't necessarily mean books that I considered "good," or even just that I had enjoyed, but rather a list of representative books. Some well-reviewed books, some well-known/popular books, some "definitive" books, even some lesser-known outliers. I've had this idea for a million years, because when people used to ask me for nonfiction suggestions at the library, often they would ask for help like this:

"What do you think is the one book to read on the Crusades?"*

So I'm just going to sneak this one in under the wire, for February as Black History Month. What are some "good books" on civil rights?

This Little Light of Mine, by Kay Mills. A biography of civil rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer. I've talked about this one before; it's one of my all-time favorite reads. You hear hardly anything about Fannie Lou Hamer anymore, but the scope of her life is amazing when you consider the circumstances into which she was born and the sheer energy it must have taken for her just to live her life AND fight (amazingly effectively) to advance civil rights. A very readable biography of an entirely unique hero. One of her most famous quotes was "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." AMEN, Fannie Lou Hamer.

Taylor Branch's trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr. (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan's Edge.)I've not read all of these--only parts of one--but if you are looking for the definitive books on MLKjr, these arguably could be the ones. Comprehensive, yet very story-driven, covering America in the years from 1954-1968.)

Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol. Kozol has made a career out of writing about racial inequalities in the education system, and I remember this one as being very eye-opening. He's also a snappy and personal writer; although it is extremely dated, his first book, Death at an Early Age, is also worth a look. That one's notable because it was published at a time when very few civil rights had really been won (1967), and when you realize, sure, it's old, but it's really not that old in the grand scheme of things, well, that gives you pause. Or at least it should.

Civil rights reading often seems to coincide with narratives about education. The personal side of the integration story is powerfully on display in Melba Pattillo Beals's memoir Warriors Don't Cry. She was one of the original Little Rock Nine who went to Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, to try and further integration. Also of interest on Little Rock: Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, a book about Elizabeth Eckford, another one of the Little Rock Nine, and Hazel Bryan Massery; they were both subjects of a famous photograph showing Hazel protesting the integration while walking behind Eckford.

Paul Hendrickson's Sons of Mississippi is the outlier book here. Full disclosure: I LOVE Paul Hendrickson. For my money there's not a better nonfiction prose stylist anywhere. And all of his skills are on display in this book that was born out of the consideration of a single photograph: the one on the cover, picturing white lawmen preparing for unrest when African American man James Meredith first started attending Ole Miss. Hendrickson delves into all of the men's stories, as well as Meredith's, and uncovers many quietly unsettling facts about living in the American South.

Novels: Please skip Kathryn Stockett's The Help and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. I mean, you can read them if you want to read some bestsellers, but to me they both seemed like the simplest of schlock focusing on a number of tired tropes: women sticking together despite race, the "feisty" African American maid who exacts revenge on her boss and is made to suffer, the quiet and wise black sisters living together. I thought a much more interesting read was Denise Nicholas's Freshwater Road. This one's about a young black woman from Michigan, who goes to Mississippi in 1964 to help with voter registration and education tasks. (Nicholas was also a long-time cast member on In the Heat of the Night.) It was not a quickly paced novel, but one of the reasons I liked it because it really showed some of the main character's struggles with going from the Michigan environment to the Mississippi environment, physically and culturally, and I really REALLY liked it because it was very visceral and it actually made me feel the heat and humidity of Mississippi in a way that most other Southern novels do not.

Bonus pick for the kids: Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963. About a family from Flint, Michigan who goes to visit other family in Birmingham, during the summer when a well-known African American church was blown up.

Honorable Mentions: Michael Durham's Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore; Nick Kotz's Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America; and David J. Garrows's Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

*This example is true, and I always felt badly that I didn't really have an answer, although we did find some books on the subject that seemed to make the patron happy. Sadly, though, I didn't really get such questions as often as I had hoped when I first studied to be a librarian. Mostly the questions I got were: Where are the tax forms? Why can't I have more than 90 minutes on the Internet per day? Where are the video game cheat code books? I'm a teacher doing a unit on climate, could you pull together all your books on that for me and I'll stop in one minute before you close to check them all out, thereby making you do all my work AND keeping you past your paid worktime? (I paraphrased that last one a bit.) Ah, the glamorous life of the reference librarian.