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Activists dedicate their lives to changing the world. Octavia Butler opens the parable of the sower with the lines: “Everything you touch / you change. / Everything you change / changes you. “The civil rights activists have made great changes possible. However, when we talk about the civil rights movement, most of the names that come to the surface belong to men. Martin Luther King Jr.Malcolm X. Bayard Rustin. John Lewis. What about all the women who worked alongside these men? These books about black civil rights activists tell their stories – in their own voices if possible. From peaceful protests to militant organizations, women have been an integral part of the civil rights movement’s successes. In the present moment, black activism remains a central part of the struggle for social justice and owes much to the work of activists who came before.
Everything they touched, they changed. Everything they changed still changes us. Here are their stories.
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In their own words
Angela Davis: An Autobiography by Angela Davis
The autobiography of activist and scholar Angela Davis was published in 1972 and is an inspiring story of her path to activism and her lifelong commitment to combating oppression. She has written several books on feminism, race, incarceration, and class. Your last book, Abolition. Feminism. Now. (together with Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie) will be released in March.
My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King (told to Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds)
Coretta Scott King was a visionary activist and committed civil rights activist. During the important work of her husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., having received much attention, Coretta Scott King is often overlooked, despite her significant role in the civil rights movement, her founding of the King Center, and her other political work. My life, my love, my legacy is their story in their own words.
Unbought and unsought by Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm was the first black Congresswoman. Her work as a politician and educator has had a huge impact on the world today. In this book, she tells the story of how she got into politics and worked to break down systemic racism throughout her career. The expanded 40th Anniversary Edition of Unbought and Unbossed also includes essays analyzing Chisholm’s political legacy.
Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memory from Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height is perhaps best known for her activism, which focuses on the rights of African American women. She helped organize March 1963 in Washington, served as President of the National Council of Negroes for 40 years, and was awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom in 1994. In Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Height reports in detail on the people and events that have shaped their lives and work.
The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memory from Daisy Bates
Activist, journalist, and civil rights activist Daisy Bates is perhaps best remembered for her work with the NAACP desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her support for the Little Rock Nine earned her national attention. In this memoir, originally published in the early 1960s, Bates tells her story of Little Rock Central High School’s integration.
Reflections by Rosa Parks: The Quiet Strength and Faith of a Woman Who Changed a Nation by Rosa Parks (with Gregory J. Reed)
Originally published as Quiet Strength, this short book is full of wisdom and insight (and photos!). Rosa Parks is best known for refusing to get on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her subsequent arrest sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, but her activism didn’t end there, and this book delivers Parks political philosophies in her own words. If you’re looking for a more complete historical overview of Parks ‘life as an activist, check out Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebel Life of Ms. Rosa Parks.
A Taste of Power: The Story of a Black Woman by Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown was the first (and only) woman to run the Black Panther Party. In this exciting memory, Brown tells her story. A Taste of Power is the personal story of Brown’s journey from childhood in Philadelphia to the three years she ran the Black Panther Party in the 1970s.
From the pens of others
Fannie Lou Hamer: America’s Freedom Fighting Wife by Maegan Parker Brooks
Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped found the Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, was a leader in the civil rights movement. Her work in registering African American voters in Mississippi and as a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus has cemented her as a major figure in civil rights activism. This book tells the story of their lives in social justice.
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radically Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby
Ella Baker is an often overlooked figure in the civil rights movement. This is partly due to the fact that Baker has been a dedicated mentor to aspiring activists. Their work led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Barbara Ransby traces Baker’s influence over 50 years of her career.
Sisters in Struggle: African American Women in the Movement for Civil Rights and Black Power Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and VP Franklin
For an overview of black women in the civil rights movement, Sisters in Struggle is a good option. It includes essays by key activists and firsthand accounts from Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, and Charlayne Hunter Gault. There are also many helpful historical and socio-political contexts.
Would you like to read more by or about black women? Check out these posts:
5 books on black movements and systemic racism in America
5 books on the influence of black women on the suffrage movement
19 Black Feminist Books You Need In Your Library
#SayHerName: 10 books that celebrate black girls and women