Five Best Books on the Civil Rights Movement

From a Wall Street Journal story by Paul Kix headlined “Five Best: Books on the Civil Right Movement”:

Parting the Waters
By Taylor Branch (1988)

1. It’s that rare work of exhaustive history that’s propulsive, the narrative forcing you to keep flipping pages even if it means flipping them well past midnight. “Parting the Waters” is the first volume of Taylor Branch’s trilogy on the civil-rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

But to say this book is about King, or even the SCLC, is to miss the point. “I have tried to make biography and history reinforce each other by knitting together a number of personal stories along the main seam of an American epoch,” Mr. Branch writes. What he has produced is, in a sense, an examination of cross sections of the American experience across generations. It’s breathtaking.

My Song
By Harry Belafonte, with Michael Shnayerson (2011)

2. Harry Belafonte discusses his success as a musician and actor, sure, and this dual-career life was no small feat for a midcentury American black man in two terribly discriminatory industries. But “My Song” is really about Belafonte’s activism. “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist,” writes Belafonte, who died in April. Belafonte was the one who warned Martin Luther King Jr. against endorsing John F. Kennedy in 1960 and becoming the administration’s “black mouthpiece.” (King listened and endorsed no one.)

Belafonte was the one who staged a massive fundraiser at his New York apartment that allowed the Birmingham Campaign to begin in 1963. Belafonte was the one who, at the height of his fame, gave up his Hollywood career for the movement. He became the liaison when Bobby Kennedy called and needed to understand King and the SCLC. “Martin would say that one of his greatest strategic decisions was recruiting me to the movement,” Belafonte writes. This man helped shape the America we live in today. “My Song” shows how he did it.

By Claudia Rankine (2014)

3. It’s unlike any book you’ll read. Claudia Rankine subtitles it “An American Lyric.” That’s as good a description as any: a song for and about America in a post-civil-rights era. Through its poetry, art and personal essays, “Citizen” helps readers see what Ms. Rankine sees as a black woman. Her point is to show that nothing ends—not the racism endemic to America and certainly not the drive for equality, either. “I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending,” Ms. Rankine writes at the conclusion of her book. Because there is no way to make her story of America conform to, say, the three-act structure of narrative, she shows readers what the nation feels like instead.

What it feels like to have a white mother protect her white daughter from sitting next to Ms. Rankine on an airplane. What it feels like as a black woman to watch Serena Williams’s frustration grow against bigoted umpires and privileged press corps: “Neither . . . God nor Nike camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court.” This is literature and history as urgent, maddening plea.

The Kingdom of God Is Within You
By Leo Tolstoy (1894)

4. After “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace,” and toward the end of his life, Leo Tolstoy sat down to write his manifesto on Christianity. “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” argues, in part, what its title suggests. The divine lives inside us, and we must honor that divinity through our actions. If the greatest truth of life is to love one’s brother, as the Golden Rule implies, then the greatest action is, in some sense, inaction: to never strike that brother. “It is the duty of all,” Tolstoy writes, “not to resort to force against anyone in any circumstance.”

The book lays out the theological principles that support its main theme—a theme as old as Christianity and yet somehow still revolutionary. Gandhi read the book and modeled his civil disobedience on it. Civil-rights leaders in the American South in the 1950s and ’60s read the book; it shaped the campaigns they waged and helped the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act win the day. The book is gripping, a distillation of a lifetime of ideas from one of history’s greatest minds.

Man’s Search for Meaning
By Viktor Frankl (1946)

5. Viktor Frankl survived Auschwitz, but this is not a concentration-camp story. It is instead a guide for how to live. An esteemed psychologist both before and after the war, Frankl writes that in every encounter in life we have a choice of how to respond. Once we realize that, we find our freedom and salvation. Even in the camps, that choice existed. For Frankl this meant realizing the nobility in suffering. “Dostoevsky once said, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: Not to be worthy of my sufferings,’ ” Frankl writes. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails . . . gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.

It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” This idea, that the righteous life is always possible, influenced civil-rights leaders in the U.S., especially as they suffered and fought for the dignity they deserved. To this day, “Man’s Search for Meaning” influences readers world-wide. Every time I read it I learn something new about myself. It’s my favorite book.

Selected by Paul Kix, the author, most recently, of ‘You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America.’

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