As Black History Month comes to a close, we’re looking at books, old and new, that offer a unique, lyrical, and unflinching perspective on America’s troubled racial history, along with some of the leaders who have helped shape or change policy in the country.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson
When people think of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which started in Alabama in 1955 and led to a Supreme Court decision that declared the segregation of buses in Montgomery and the state unconstitutional, they often think of Rosa Parks. Robinson’s memoir sheds light on this simplified history to show that the origins of the boycott went far beyond the day Parks refused to give up her seat. In fact it was the work of many activists—primarily women, and those involved in the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery—who had been protesting the racist and often violent conditions on Montgomery’s city buses for years, and organized the movement. Before Rosa Parks ever gave up her seat on December 1, 1955, at least two other women had been arrested for doing the same thing.
Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson
Tyson, a scholar and the author of the new book on the Emmett Till case (The Blood of Emmett Till) and his memoir and meditation on race (Blood Don’t Sign My Name), chronicles the story of Robert F. Williams, a grassroots activist and NAACP branch president in the late 1950s who advocated for “armed self-reliance” over nonviolence as a challenge to white supremacy. Tyson skillfully portrays Williams as a little understood civil rights leader and provides context for the climate that led to Black Power ideology and actions over those of nonviolent resistance.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington
This eloquent, slim autobiography takes us through Washington’s life from his birth as a slave in Virginia to his becoming a schoolmaster and the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute. In turn it also shows the unrelenting struggle and successes of one of the major civil rights figures at the turn of the twentieth century. His accommodationist views, which purported that self-help and education were the best forms of advancement, were not without controversy—making W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk an excellent companion piece here.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
You might consider this collection, first published in 1903, as a series of essential protest essays. Lyrical and influential, Du Bois’s discusses the now-famous idea of double consciousness—“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”—along with an examination of the Reconstruction-era South and the profound impact of racism on individuals. He also takes on Booker T. Washington, arguing that the active fight for equal rights is critical for all human beings.
For more recommended reading, see Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman and At the Hands of Persons Unknown by Philip Dray.