Activists dedicate their lives to changing the world. Octavia Butler opens The Parable of the Sower with the lines, “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you.” The activists of the Civil Rights Movement made a great deal of change possible. Yet when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, most of the names that rise 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 women activists of the Civil Rights Movement tell their stories — in their own voices, when possible. From peaceful protests to militant organizations, women were integral to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. In the current moment, Black activism remains central to the fight for social justice and owes much to the work of the activists who came before.
All that they touched, they changed. All that they changed, changes us still. Here are their stories.
In Their Own Words
Angela Davis: An Autobiography by Angela Davis
Originally published in 1972, activist and scholar Angela Davis’s autobiography is an inspiring story about her journey to activism and her lifelong commitment to working against oppression. She has written several books on feminism, race, incarceration, and class. Her most recent book Abolition. Feminism. Now. (coauthored with Gina Dent, Erica Meiners, and Beth Richie) will be published 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 leader. While much attention has been given to the important work of her husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 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 her story in her own words.
Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm was the first Black Congresswoman. Her work as a politician and an educator has had tremendous impacts on today’s world. In this book, she tells the story of how she came to politics and worked to dismantle 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 Memoir by Dorothy Height
Dorothy Height is perhaps most well known for her activism focused on African American women’s rights. She helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, served as president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. In Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Height intimately recounts the people and events that shaped her life and her work.
The Long Shadow of Little Rock: A Memoir by Daisy Bates
Activist, journalist, and civil rights leader Daisy Bates is perhaps best remembered for the work she did with the NAACP toward desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her support of the Little Rock Nine earned her national attention. In this memoir, originally published in the early 1960s, Bates tells her story about the integration of Little Rock Central High School.
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 brimming with wisdom and insight (and photographs!). Rosa Parks is best known for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her subsequent arrest kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but her activism didn’t end there and this book delivers Parks’s political philosophies in her own words. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive historical overview of Parks’s lifetime of activism, check out Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story by Elaine Brown
Elaine Brown was the first (and only) woman to lead the Black Panther Party. In this riveting memoir, Brown shares her story. A Taste of Power is the personal story of Brown’s journey from her 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 Woman by Maegan Parker Brooks
Fannie Lou Hamer, who helped to found the Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Her work registering African American voters in Mississippi and as a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus have cemented her as an important figure in civil rights activism. This book tells the story of her lifetime of social justice work.
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision by Barbara Ransby
Ella Baker is an often-overlooked figure in the Civil Rights Movement. This is due, in part, to the fact that Baker was a dedicated mentor to emerging activists. Her work led to the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Barbara Ransby traces Baker’s influence during the 50 years of her career.
Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement Edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin
For an overview of Black women of the Civil Rights Movement, Sisters in the Struggle is a good option. It includes essays about key female activists as well as first-hand accounts by Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, and Charlayne Hunter Gault. It also gives a lot of helpful historical and sociopolitical context.
Want to read more written by or about Black women? Check out these posts: