Exploring the Civil Rights Movement

Book Links January 2008 (vol. 17, no. 3)

By Jeanne McLain Harms and Lucille J. Lettow

Elementary school through high school

Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month with books that portray the leaders and everyday heroes of the civil rights movement.

From the desegregation of public schools to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington, the civil rights movement drew its strength not from its high-profile leaders—Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X—but from the thousands of individuals, many of them young people, who sacrificed and often risked personal harm to effect change and combat racism. Their grassroots strategies, including nonviolent resistance, protests, boycotts, and rallies, raised the nation’s consciousness and produced reforms in education and voting rights and banned discriminatory employment, public facility, and housing practices.

Introduce the following titles to students and encourage them to be inspired by those who questioned the world around them and succeeded in making change.

Picture Books

Freedom on the Menu: The ­Greensboro Sit-Ins. By Carole ­Boston ­Weatherford. Illus. by Jerome ­Lagarrigue. 2005. 32p. Dial, $16.99 (9780803728608).

K–Gr. 4. Eight-year-old Connie witnesses her older siblings protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. When her brother’s friends conduct a successful sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, their act of peaceful protest starts a wave of similar demonstrations. An author’s note gives background information about the events in Greensboro that year.

Freedom School, Yes! By Amy Littlesugar. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2001. 40p. Philomel, $16.99 (9780399230066).

Preschool–Gr. 3. Based on events in Mississippi in 1964 when volunteers from the North set up Freedom Schools to teach black students, this picture book is narrated by Jolie, a young black girl whose mother hosts one of the visiting white teachers. When the church where the school is held is burned down, classes continue outside and Jolie finds the courage to fight back.

Freedom Summer. By ­Deborah Wiles. Illus. by Jerome ­Lagarrigue. 2001. 32p. Simon & ­Schuster/Anne Schwartz, $16.95 (9780689830167); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (9780689878299).

K–Gr. 3. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation, some in the South were slow to recognize it. In this picture book, the narrator, Joe, a young white boy, and his black friend, John Henry, look forward to swimming together in the town’s newly integrated public pool, only to find the pool has been filled with tar in protest. For another story of friendship that crosses racial lines, see Jacqueline Woodson’s
The Other Side (Putnam, 2001).

Grandmama’s Pride. By Becky Birtha. Illus. by Colin Bootman. 2005. 32p. Albert Whitman, $16.95 (9780807530283).

K–Gr. 3. In 1956, six-year-old Sarah Marie travels with her mother and sister to the South to visit Grandmama. Sarah Marie is unaware of the Jim Crow laws dictating where they may sit on the bus or eat their lunch until she reads the “Whites Only” and “Colored People” signs. The following summer, she travels to Grandmama’s again, but new laws have ended segregation. An author’s note explains the Jim Crow laws in more detail. Also see
Going North by Deborah Wiles (Simon & Schuster/Anne Schwartz, 2004).

Riding to Washington. By Gwenyth Swain. Illus. by David Geister. February 2008. 40p. Sleeping Bear, $17.95 (9781585363247).

K–Gr. 3. In this Tales of Young Americans series title, a young white girl named Janie accompanies her father on a bus trip from Indianapolis to the 1963 March on Washington. At first, Janie wonders why her father wants to go see Martin Luther King Jr. speak, but as the bus riders pass by segregated restaurants and restrooms on their way to Washington, she sees firsthand the injustices that others face and realizes the importance of taking a stand for what is right.


Abby Takes a Stand. By Patricia C. McKissack. 2005. 112p. Viking, $14.99 (9780670060115); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (9780142406878).

Gr. 2–4. In this Scraps of Time title set in 1960, 10-year-old Abby is humiliated and angered when she is turned away from a Nashville restaurant. Too young to participate in sit-ins at the city’s restaurants and lunch counters, she hands out flyers advocating nonviolent protest. Due to the success of the sit-ins, which became an early milestone in the civil rights movement, Nashville was the first major southern city to begin desegregating public facilities.

Fire from the Rock. By Sharon M. Draper. 2007. 176p. Dutton, $16.99 (9780525477204).

Gr. 9–12. At first, Sylvia Patterson is thrilled when she is chosen as one of the first African American students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. But the racism in her town is terrifying, and she is not sure she can go through with it. The surprising turnaround in the plot will grab readers and raise the elemental issue: what would I have done? A final note fills in history and provides a list of related Web sites.

A Friendship for Today. By Patricia C. McKissack. 2007. 176p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780439660983).

Gr. 4–7. In 1954, 12-year-old Rosemary is chosen to participate in the desegregation of a school system, but at the beginning of the school year, she discovers that she is the only African American enrolled in her newly integrated school. As the school year progresses, she develops an unlikely friendship with a white girl who once displayed racist behavior toward her.

Mayfield Crossing. By Vaunda ­Micheaux Nelson. 1993. 96p. Putnam, paper, $5.99 (9780698119307).

Gr. 4–7. When her small school, Mayfield Crossing, is closed and the students are bused to the larger, newer Parkview School, fourth-grader Meg and her Mayfield Crossing classmates, black and white, encounter racial prejudice for the first time. Tensions ease when one of the Parkview students joins the Mayfield Crossing baseball team. Also see the sequel,
Beyond Mayfield (Putnam, 1999).

Mississippi Trial, 1955. By Chris Crowe. 2002. 240p. Dial, $17.99 (9780803727458); Puffin, paper, $5.99 (9780142501924).

Gr. 7–12. The 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi and the trial of his killers are the center of this novel narrated by white teenager Hiram, who meets lively Emmett before his horrifying abduction and murder. True to newspaper accounts, the book also exposes the violent racism in daily life as well as in the dramatic trial.

My Mother the Cheerleader. By Robert Sharenow. 2007. 304p. HarperCollins/Laura Geringer, $16.99 (9780061148965).

Gr. 7–10. When her mother pulls Louise, 13, out of class to protest the court-ordered integration of her school in New Orleans in 1960, Louise thinks segregation is just the way things are. Then New York editor Morgan Miller comes to stay in her mother’s run-down boardinghouse, and his quiet outrage makes Louise begin to have doubts and questions.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. By Christopher Paul Curtis. 1995. 210p. Delacorte, $16.95 (9780385321754); Laurel-Leaf, ­paper, $6.50 (9780440228004).

Gr. 4–8. Kenny’s older brother gets into so much trouble that his parents decide to take him to his grandmother’s house in Birmingham, Alabama, in the hope that she’ll straighten him out. It’s 1963, and racism and the civil rights movement are a soft rumble in the background as the African American Watsons drive south, but the terror of racism comes to the surface when Kenny’s little sister is in a Birmingham church when it is bombed.

Yankee Girl. By Mary Ann ­Rodman. 2004. 224p. Farrar, $17 (9780374386610).

Gr. 4–7. In 1964, 11-year-old Alice Ann Moxley moves with her family from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, where her FBI-agent father has been transferred to protect African Americans registering to vote. Alice experiences exclusion at school because of her northerner status and witnesses the suffering racism causes blacks, yet she still is torn about befriending Valerie, the school’s only black student.


Birmingham, 1963. By Carole Boston Weatherford. 2007. 32p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong, $17.95 (9781590784402).

Gr. 3–6. In free verse, a fictional 10-year-old tells of the events leading up to the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the four young girls who died in the explosion. Lines of spare poetry are placed opposite archival photographs, and an author’s note fills in the history.

This Is the Dream. By Diane Z. Shore and Jessica Alexander. Illus. by James Ransome. 2006. 40p. HarperCollins, $16.99 (9780060555191).

Gr. 2–4. An excellent resource for discussing the changes of the civil rights era as they benefit all Americans, this book’s rhythmic verse tells the story of the civil rights struggle with simplicity and power, while its dramatic images bring the concepts home, depicting scenes of segregation, protest, and, finally, an inclusive America where people eat, read, and share together.

A Wreath for Emmett Till. By Marilyn Nelson. Illus. by Philippe Lardy. 2005. 48p. Houghton, $17 (9780618397525).

Gr. 9–12. This title memorializes the brutal 1955 murder of 14-year-old African American Emmett Till through a sophisticated poetic form—a crown of sonnets. Till’s death helped raise an awareness of the evils of racism that led to the civil rights movement.


Delivering Justice: W. W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights. By Jim Haskins. Illus. by Benny Andrews. 2005. 32p. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763625924).

Gr. 2–4. This picture-book biography tells the story of Westley ­Wallace Law, a mail carrier in Savannah, Georgia, who took advantage of his daily association with many people to quietly lead his city to desegregation three years before federal legislation was enacted. Full-page oil-and-collage illustrations appear throughout, and the book ends with a photo of Law and an afterword that provides more details about his life.

Fight On! Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration. By Dennis Brindell Fradin and Judith Bloom Fradin. 2003. 192p. Clarion, $18 (9780618133499).

Gr. 5–9. The daughter of former slaves, this lesser-known civil rights leader was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. At the age of 89, Terrell won a Supreme Court decision that ended racial discrimination in Washington, D.C., restaurants. This handsome volume contains illustrations and period photographs as well as detailed source notes and a bibliography.

John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement. By Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson. Illus. by Benny Andrews. 2006. 40p. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781584302506).

Gr. 3–5. Born in the segregated South in 1940, John Lewis grew up to lead many protests for civil rights, and he has served in Congress for the last 20 years. In this picture book for older readers, the authors blend information on Lewis’ contributions with the history of the civil rights struggle and include a time line, a selection of black-and-white photos, and a bibliography.

M. L. K.: Journey of a King. By Tonya Bolden. 2007. 128p. Abrams, $19.95 (9780810954762).

Gr. 7–10. Bolden’s biography is divided into three main sections, beginning with the days leading up to the civil rights movement, continuing with King’s growing involvement in and commitment to nonviolent protest, and ending with his death. The photos and accompanying captions are important assets, as is the time line, which is color-coded to link to the sections of text. Also see Kerry A. Graves’
I Have a Dream: The Story behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s Most Famous Speech (Chelsea, 2004).

Martin’s Big Words. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2001. 40p. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $15.99 (9780786807147); paper, $6.99 (9781423106357).

Preschool–Gr. 4. This inspiring picture-book biography celebrates the great leader as a preacher and politician. The spare narrative, accompanied by powerful art, captures the essentials of the man, the movement he led, and his policy of nonviolence. Also see
My Brother Martin by King’s sister, Christine King Farris (Simon & Schuster, 2003),
Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington by Frances E. Ruffin (Grosset, 2001), and Walter Dean Myers’
I’ve Seen the Promised Land (HarperCollins, 2004).

The Power of One: Daisy Bates and the Little Rock Nine. By Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin. 2004. 192p. Clarion, $19 (9780618315567).

Gr. 8–11. In 1957 Daisy Bates, journalist and president of the ­Arkansas NAACP, served as a mentor to the first students to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School. Through memoirs, newspaper accounts, and interviews, including those with two of the students, the authors bring Bates’ story to life.

Rosa. By Nikki Giovanni. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2005. 40p. Holt, $16.95 (9780805071061); Square Fish, paper, $6.99 (9780312376024).

Gr. 3–6. Collier’s cover illustration featuring a bus driver confronting Rosa Parks will draw young readers into this picture book that begins as a biography and ends as an account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Pair this title with Pamela Duncan Edwards’ T
he Bus Ride That Changed History (Houghton, 2005). To learn more about Rosa Parks, see Jim Haskins’
Rosa Parks: My Story (Dial, 1992),
Dear Mrs. Parks by Rosa Parks and Gregory J. Reed (Lee & Low, 1996), or, for younger students, the easy-reader autobiography
I Am Rosa Parks (Dial, 1997).

Through My Eyes. By Ruby Bridges. 1999. 64p. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780590189231); paper, $5.95 (9780590546300).

Gr. 3–9. Bridges combines her adult commentary, news reports of the time, and graphic personal memories of what it was like, at age six, to be the first black pupil to attend a formerly segregated school in New Orleans in 1960. Great for classroom discussion, this book examines not only Bridges’ childhood experience but her place in civil rights history as well.

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin. By Larry Dane Brimner. 2007. 48p. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $17.95 (9781590784983).

Gr. 5–8. Brimner sets Rustin’s personal story against the history of segregation and focuses on his leadership role in the struggle for civil rights. On each page, the informal text is accompanied by captioned archival photos that include images of racist violence as well as pictures of Rustin “in protest mode,” passing out antiwar leaflets, advising Martin Luther King Jr. on peaceful protest, and organizing the triumphant 1963 March on Washington.

Informational Books

A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968. By ­Diane McWhorter. 2004. 160p. Scholastic, $19.95 (9780439576789).

Gr. 5–9. In one of the best general treatments of the civil rights movement, McWhorter writes from her perspectives as a white child attending a segregated school in Birmingham during the ’50s and ’60s and as a scholar. Covering the major events in the civil rights movement, the author’s balanced and extensively researched presentation includes discussions of both nonviolent and violent tactics.

Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement. By Ann Bausum. 2006. 80p. National Geographic, $18.95 (9780792241737).

Gr. 5–9. In 1961 two young men—one white and from the North and the other black and from the South—joined activists on the 1961 Freedom Rides. Bausum describes their harrowing experiences as they traveled through the South, concluding with the direction each one took following the protests.

Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By Russell Freedman. 2006. 112p. Holiday, $18.95 (9780823420315).

Gr. 5–9. Freedman’s narrative writing style, accompanied by well-chosen photos, includes Rosa Parks’ story but also earlier accounts of lesser-known activists and emphasizes the strong sense of organization, cooperation, and commitment that evolved during the 381 days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case. By Chris Crowe. 2003. 128p. Dial, $18.99 (9780803728042).

Gr. 6–12. Crowe presents extensive research and photos of the events surrounding the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the trial and acquittal of his white murderers, considered to be one of the key events giving rise to the civil rights movement.

Nobody Gonna Turn Me ’Round: Songs and Stories of the Civil Rights Movement. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2006. 64p. Candlewick, $19.99 (9780763619275).

Gr. 4–7. Dramatic oil paintings showing the courage of young people at sit-ins, on freedom rides, and behind bars accompany Rappaport’s present-tense narrative about the famous leaders and unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. The text also includes a chronology, source notes, and bibliography.

Oh, Freedom! Kids Talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen. By Casey King and Linda Barrett Osborne. 1997. 144p. Knopf, paper, $12.95 (9780679890058).

Gr. 5–9. In 31 lively interviews, children ask family members, friends, and neighbors about the part they played in the civil rights movement. With each interview, there are informal photos of the child and adult talking and dramatic documentary photos of the historic events they are talking about. The authors also provide a bibliography and a chronology for further research.

Remember: The Journey to School Integration. By Toni Morrison. 2004. 80p. Houghton, $18 (9780618397402).

Gr. 5–up. In her introduction, Morrison talks about the reality of separate but equal and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The following pages are filled with photos that focus on ordinary young people and the role they played in school integration. Opposite each image, Morrison imagines the thoughts and feelings of the children pictured. Also see the essay collection
Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone: Brown v. Board of Education Decision by Joyce Carol Thomas (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 2003).

The School Is Not White! A True Story of the Civil Rights Movement. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Curtis James. 2005. 32p. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, $16.99 (9780786818389).

Gr. 3–6. In 1965 Mae Bertha and Matthew Carter enrolled their children in the better-quality, all-white school in Drew, Mississippi. Their children faced discrimination and the Carters lost their jobs and home, but the family’s perseverance paid off. For more on the struggle for equal education rights, see Jim Haskins’
Separate but Not Equal: The Dream and the Struggle (Scholastic, 1998).

Speaking Out: The Civil Rights Movement 1950–1964. By Kevin Supples. 2006. 40p. National Geographic, $12.95 (9780792282792).

Gr. 4–8. From the Crossroads America series comes this concise overview of the civil rights movement. Major events in the movement are presented chronologically, each briefly introduced in a double-page spread accompanied by photos and quotations. This short volume could serve as a starting point in a unit or as a resource for less-experienced readers.

Jeanne McLain Harms is professor emeritus in the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa.
Lucille J. Lettow is a professor and youth collection librarian at Rod Library at the University of Northern Iowa.