December 1st, 1955, marks the day civil rights activist Rosa Parks rejected a bus driver’s order, in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up her seat in the “colored” section of the bus to a white passenger, after the whites-only section had already been filled. She was then arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation. However, Rosa Parks was able to appeal her conviction, and she formally challenged the legality of segregation laws in the process. Throughout the following years, this incident would become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.
In celebration of Rosa Parks’ act of resistance, we’ve chosen to share a recommended reading list of biographical books revolving around other black civil rights activists. While we celebrate the work of Parks and these other amazing individuals, we must understand there’s still a lot more work to do.
BY TIMOTHY B. TYSON
Tyson has written, with compelling prose and great insight, an excellent biography as well as a definitive history of armed self-defense doctrines in the civil rights movement. He has produced a fascinating book that is a welcome antidote to the historical pap being spooned out in popular documentaries these days.Journal of Southern History
BY BARBARA RANSBY
A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.
In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ransby shows Baker to be a complex figure whose radical, democratic worldview, commitment to empowering the black poor, and emphasis on group-centered, grassroots leadership set her apart from most of her political contemporaries. Beyond documenting an extraordinary life, the book paints a vivid picture of the African American fight for justice and its intersections with other progressive struggles worldwide across the twentieth century.
BY RICHARD A. ROSEN, JOSEPH MOSNIER
This first biography of Chambers captur[es] his personality, character, and self-effacing determination. . . . Though books on legal topics are hardly known for their readability, this one is an exception. More than a simple biography of a lawyer, this account chronicles an entire law firm and how civil rights are achieved in the real world. Verdict: Essential.Library Journal, Starred Review
BY SHERIE M. RANDOLPH
Often photographed in a cowboy hat with her middle finger held defiantly in the air, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (1916–2000) left a vibrant legacy as a leader of the Black Power and feminist movements. In the first biography of Kennedy, Sherie M. Randolph traces the life and political influence of this strikingly bold and controversial radical activist. Rather than simply reacting to the predominantly white feminist movement, Kennedy brought the lessons of Black Power to white feminism and built bridges in the struggles against racism and sexism. Randolph narrates Kennedy’s progressive upbringing, her pathbreaking graduation from Columbia Law School, and her long career as a media-savvy activist, showing how Kennedy rose to founding roles in organizations such as the National Black Feminist Organization and the National Organization for Women, allying herself with both white and black activists such as Adam Clayton Powell, H. Rap Brown, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm.
Making use of an extensive and previously uncollected archive, Randolph demonstrates profound connections within the histories of the new left, civil rights, Black Power, and feminism, showing that black feminism was pivotal in shaping postwar U.S. liberation movements.
BY LARRY GERSHENHORN
This is a fine-grained portrait of the life of Louis Austin, the brilliant, fiery, indefatigable African American editor of the Carolina Times, North Carolina’s most important black newspaper. It will make an essential and absorbing contribution to the story of the black press, the African American freedom struggle in the South, and the history of North Carolina.Timothy B. Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name and Radio Free Dixie, Second Edition