12 Books That Will Teach You Things You Never Knew About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And The Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is more than just a day off of work or school. Celebrating the birthday of Dr. King is basically to celebrate the revolutionary ideas and actions of the amazing men and women who took injustice by the collar and completely altered the course of our national history, and, really, changed the whole world.

There’s hardly a person alive who doesn’t know who Martin Luther King Jr. is, and that is as it should be. But there is a lot more to the man and the Civil Rights Movement than the lessons of sit-ins and moving speeches that we all learned in school. The vision that we attribute to Dr. King was encouraged and made possible by the many remarkable leaders and activists he worked with and learned from. The organizing that made protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott possible were immense and painstaking. The achievements for racial justice that King helped achieve during the Civil Rights era overshadow some of his more radical work for labor rights, anti-war protest, and global change.

There’s a lot to know about Dr. King and the other heroes that continue to inspire us. So maybe to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, we should all add a book or two to our plans and keep everything that MLK stands for alive and well.

Oh, and if you need a good soundtrack to read to, you’ve got to try this great Spotify playlist of Mahalia Jackson singing Dr. King’s favorite hymns.

1. Stride Toward Freedom by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you’re like me, you learned a thing or two about the Montgomery Bus Boycott that shot Dr. King to fame and launched the unprecedented achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, but you find it completely baffling that this group of leaders was able to pull off such a massive and long-term protest. Well, reading Stride Toward Freedom will help you get a grasp on exactly how they were able to pull it off and how much effort and cooperation and even a little luck were needed. It was an incredible feat, and every single one of today’s activists ought to read this account as an inspiration for today’s campaigns for justice.

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2. Parting the Waters , Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge three-volume history by Taylor Branch

If you really want to dig into the history of Dr. King and the Civil Rights era, this thousand-page effort is like nerdy, nerdy candy for any history buff.

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3. The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

The story of Rosa Parks that you learned in school paints a picture of an old, tired woman who incidentally sat down in the “wrong” part of the bus to rest her tired feet. But this story is far from the truth. If Rosa Parks was tired that day, it was tired of being a second-class citizen, tired of the injustice all around her. Theoharis reveals the real Rosa Parks — a determined, pertinacious activist who deliberately sat down on many a bus to take a stand for justice.

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4. Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D’Emilio

Bayard Rustin was one of the most important activists the Civil Rights Era. His work alongside King, organizing the March on Washington, and for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was indispensable. Yet, because he was openly gay, his involvement at the time was considered controversial at best and even downright unacceptable to many. However, Rustin was one of the most crucial leaders to the movement, and it’s well past time he receive the recognition for his remarkable achievements.

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5. Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

History often portrays poor and working class whites as some of the worst enemies of civil rights, and poor Blacks as perhaps indifferent or too fearful to get involved at best. However, Sonnie and Tracy here reveal that the working class had its rebels and revolutionaries, who, inspired by the movement rocking the South, organized their own communities and movements to fight for the rights of the oppressed and the poor.

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6. The Radical King by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cornel West

It’s easy today to get behind the ideas that Martin Luther King has come to represent — peaceful protest, racial equality, and peace. But King’s vision for economic justice, against global imperialism, and against the Vietnam War made him a radical voice in his time, and many of these same ideas would probably make him pretty radical in our time as well. This collection reveals the radical side of King that earned him scrutiny by the FBI and made him a terrifying adversary to those who would promote injustice. And the book goes on sale just in time for Dr. King's birthday.

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7. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb Jr.

When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, movies, books, and even classroom lessons often leave us with a romantic view of activists passively accepting violence until hateful racists changed their minds and hearts. It’s a nice idea, but not really realistic. Charles Cobb gets at a controversial and little-known fact about the Civil Rights Movement — the activists and leaders of the movement made use of armed citizens and veterans and their own arms to protect themselves and their families.

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8. All Labor Has Dignity by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Michael K. Honey

For many of us Martin Luther King, Jr’s vision was one of equality for black Americans. However, his vision was much more expansive and inclusive than that. One of King’s greatest goals was for economic equality. Michael Honey, a professor of labor studies and a labor activist himself, draws on the speeches and writings of King himself to bring this vision of King’s back into the light.

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9. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950 by Glenda Gilmore

In the era of Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement took off, gaining national and international attention and, through the hard work of many activists and social justice fighters, making gains for justice and equality. But, the Civil Rights movement didn’t just happen overnight nor spawn magically from the brilliant mind of Dr. King. Before the likes of King and Parks and Abernathy, there were activists fighting Jim Crow and inequality in the era of World War I, FDR, and the rise of Communism. Here are some of the often overlooked foundations of the Civil Rights Movement.

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10. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Not everyone was marching and shouting and sitting-in when the U.S. was so embroiled in racial inequality. Some people were just trying to get by, and sometimes that meant packing up and trying your luck somewhere else. During the Great Migration between 1915 and 1970, some 6 million Black Americans did just that. Their stories in The Warmth of Other Suns let you zoom out from the movements taking place in the South and see what was happening all over the country as millions were fleeing the violence of the South and forging new lives, forever changing the social-cultural landscape of the U.S.

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11. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Jim Crow era didn’t exactly end with the Voting Rights Act of ‘65. Alexander argues that the mass incarceration system that disproportionately imprisons people of color is one of the direct and sneaky descendents of Jim Crow. And Alexander really does her homework to prove it in The New Jim Crow.

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12. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For by Alice Walker

It’s all well and good to celebrate history and learn everything there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement. It’s interesting stuff! But Martin Luther King Day is about a lot more than celebrating history or even the man himself; it’s about what King stood for; it’s about service; it’s about taking the vision and message of the Civil Rights Movement and keeping it strong today. So, one of the best ways to celebrate is to take a look at the issues of today and get your hands dirty doing something about it. Who better to inspire righteous indignation, compassion and justice than the great Alice Walker?

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Image: Wikimedia