Snowed in for a three-day weekend? It’s a good time to re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s unflinching expression of faith in the power of love and nonviolent direct action.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in 1963, in a message that’s as timeless as it is powerful. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
But readings on race, justice and civil rights shouldn’t stop there. Here are a few other suggestions – a list based on books that I’ve had a chance to read:
- “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” by Barbara Ransby. This book belongs at the top of the list. It changed my understanding of the civil rights movement. Yes, King’s leadership was important, but even more essential was the patient, fearless behind-the-scenes work done by Baker and others like her over decades.
- “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. Six million African-Americans left the rural South for the Northeast, Midwest and West in the early 20th century, fundamentally reshaping America. Wilkerson tells the story with grace and intimacy, weaving it around the experiences of three individuals who made the journey to freedom and opportunity.
- “The Wall Between,” by Anne Braden. Braden and her husband, Carl, acted as intermediaries in 1954 to help a black couple buy a house in an all-white Louisville suburb. The house was bombed and Carl Braden was imprisoned for sedition. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that Louisville couldn’t desegregate its schools, because the school segregation reflected housing segregation that was voluntary. This book shows the court was wrong.
- “On the Laps of Gods,” by Robert Whitaker. In 1919, black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, met at a church to organize a union. White authorities showed up, shots were fired, and white militias and federal troops hunted down and killed over 100 African-Americans, including women and children. Over 200 local blacks were jailed; 12 were sentenced to death but were saved from execution by the heroic work of black attorney Scipio Jones. It’s one of the real tragedies of American history, and a continuing tragedy that so few know about it.
- “Stamped from the Beginning,” by Ibram X. Kendi. The American University historian traces attitudes toward race from the first white settlement, framing them as segregationist, assimilationist or antiracist. It’s a wide sweep of American history seen through a critical, unsparing lens.
- “The Negro in Indiana before 1900,” by Emma Lou Thornbrough. This 1957 book by the late Butler University historian and activist may seem dated, but it’s eye-opening for folks like me who have lived for decades in Indiana without knowing a lot about the state’s racial past.
I read several of these books shortly after the 2016 election, when the prospect of Donald Trump as president seemed too awful to face. But people of African descent have endured unimaginably worse experiences in America for 400 years.
We can despair or, like King, Ella Baker, Scipio Jones and the Bradens, we can choose the struggle.