Skip to main content

A Martin Luther King Jr. Day Civil Rights Reading List

Experts share their thoughts on the most essential pieces of civil rights literature, including such luminaries as James Baldwin, Denise Nicholas, and Langston Hughes.
Martin Luther King, circa 1961.

Martin Luther King, circa 1961.

There's a reason why Martin Luther King Jr. became the face of the American civil rights movement: The reverend was a brilliant writer and a gifted orator. Nearly every American is familiar with his "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people at the 1963 March on Washington. But that's hardly his only enduring contribution to the written and spoken wordKing produced many of the era's most iconic documents.

"First and foremost, people do not spend anywhere near enough time reading him," says Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. "We often feel like we know him and don't actually really grapple with the substance of his ideas."

When it comes to King's most under-read addresses, Theoharis points to the very first speech King ever delivered, as a 26-year-old on the night that the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in 1955. She also looks to his 1967 speech before the American Psychological Association, in which King asked social scientists to help America "understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject."

Olatunde Johnson, the Jerome B. Sherman Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, encourages her students to listen to King's "eerily prescient" mountaintop speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated, which focuses in on issues of economic justice. "Just the sense of him facing his own mortality and the danger that he was facing in participating in the struggle—there's something very powerful about the idea that he was accepting that personal sacrifice," Johnson says.

King's texts are moving reflections on the fight for economic and racial justice in this country, but the civil rights movement is larger than any one man. So for Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, Pacific Standard asked civil rights experts to share their thoughts on the most essential pieces of civil rights literature. Here are their picks:

'The Fire Next Time' by James Baldwin

I myself like to read the last chapter of James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, which is a dialectic on the inevitability of racism and yet contains hope that it might one day be vanquished.

Baldwin is a very different character from King. He was a lot more preoccupied with the flip side of America's racial history, that it's not necessarily this path toward this inevitable end of racism. We often tell ourselves the story about Martin Luther King that fits into our narrative of our country, where we are inevitably building on and moving toward racial progress. Baldwin, because he's always grappling with the dark side of American history and doesn't accept the idea that it will inevitably be a happy ending he is a much more complicated less comfortable figure for us, even today. I read this last chapter because it confronts this fundamental question of racism, of the dehumanization of black people throughout the history of this country, and something he was wearing himself almost physically the way he renders it in his language. He is so poetic in how he conveys what that dehumanization feels like for him, and yet there's still an element of hope in the face of that. I love that contradiction. He confronts these brutal realities, but you feel a thread of hope.

—Columbia Law Professor Olatunde Johnson

'I've Got the Light of Freedom' by Charles Payne

There's a book called I've Got the Light of Freedom by Charles Payne, which I think is a really tremendous book of the civil rights movement in Mississippi. It really gives the reader a sense of how organizing was done on a day-to-day basis in Mississippi; the groundwork that was laid by activists in previous generations, before the modern movement of the '50s and '60s; and the sacrifices those generations had to make in really hard circumstances, in one of the toughest states to crack, in terms of civil rights, in the country. It reminds us that there's a movement happening even away from the mainstream narrative that we like to tell that basically follows Dr. King.

—Blair Kelley, professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson

'Freshwater Road' by Denise Nicholas

The civil rights movement has been dealt with very extensively in works of non-fiction; it's been dealt with very extensively in works of documentary film and even some feature films now like Selma. But it hasn't been rendered as often in fiction. And Denise Nicholas' novel Freshwater Road is the most vivid and moving fictional depiction that I know of.

It's basically a coming-of-age story, about a young African-American woman from Detroit who goes down to Mississippi to work during Freedom Summer as a volunteer. It combines these elements of coming of age, of political awakening, a love story, a really nuanced sophisticated sense of the interplay between the northern African-American experience and southern African-American experience, the generational differences within the black community of the 1960s, and on top of all that it's just plain beautifully written.

It's also really important because it's a civil rights book with a female main character. It’s been harder for the women who were central to the movement like Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash and Ella Baker to get the amount of ink—the amount of historical recognition—they deserve. There has been a tendency to overlook or to shortchange the women in the movement, and a historical novel like Freshwater Road goes some way toward correcting it. 

Samuel G. Freedman, professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author of eight books including Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

'Ella Baker' by Barbara Ransby

I'd recommend Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement by Barbara Ransby. Ella Baker is my very favorite person in the civil rights movement, a person who was essential to creating the infrastructure on which the movement stood. She began working in the 1940s for the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], building up their chapters and creating a network of people who could be called on to engage in the civil rights movement, who could provide safe harbor, who could support the movement, who could lead. And Baker was a really tremendous person: She met Rosa Parks before Parks sit-in on the bus and encouraged her and an audience of people to think about what they could do personally to make change. Baker worked for King; she helped organize his organization; she helped to organize the sit-ins that began in 1960, so she's just an essential—and yet still little known—figure among too many Americans.

—NCSU's Blair Kelley

Langston Hughes' Poetry

One of the most overlooked people of the civil rights movement is Langston Hughes. Dr. King invoked Langston Hughes' poetry throughout his speeches during the civil rights movement, and so it's very interesting for people to go back and look at some of the original text that Dr. King was riffing on in many of his speeches.

In the very beginning of Dr. Kings career, he uses a poem by Langston Hughes called "Mother to Son." It becomes the poem that Dr. King ends his first speech in San Francisco at the NAACP conference, in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There's a great poem by Hughes called "I Dream a World." He wrote this poem in 1937, it was published in 1941, and it was one of his signature poems. That poem is the one that Dr. King is riffing off of when he comes up with his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, and so people can look back and get a sense that a lot of the civil rights movement had earlier roots.

The other poem people get right away, because it talks about marching, is a poem called "Youth." That is a poem that Dr. King used over 70 different times; he used it in speeches, sermons, I even found in my research one time he incorporated it into a prayer. So this idea of marching, of moving forward, all these particular themes are really metaphors that King found not in the Old Testament, he didn't find them in simply the politics of the movement; he found them in poetry.

Jason Miller, professor of English at North Carolina State University, and the author of Origins of the Dream: Hughes' Poetry and King's Rhetoric