A reading list is no substitute for political action. But it can inform the steps we take to win a more just world. As the late Detroit activist General Baker put it, “We have to turn thinkers into fighters and fighters into thinkers.”
With that in mind, here’s a list with an eye toward better understanding the history of the black freedom struggle — and carrying that struggle forward today.
A long — very long — book, but more than worth it if you want to understand the centrality of the black freedom struggle to American democracy. First published in 1935, Black Reconstruction chronicles, with great rhetorical flourish, the story of the post–Civil War Reconstruction era, when free black men won the right to vote, African Americans attained positions in elected office, and legislatures set about constructing schools and hospitals for all. Du Bois overturned decades of racist scholarship that had insisted Reconstruction legislatures were irredeemably corrupt and that black Americans were unable to govern themselves. And Du Bois showed, as Robert Greene II notes in his write-up of the book for Jacobin, that “forging a radical democracy requires combating both racism and the degradations of capitalism.”
A remarkable book about the power of racial justice struggles rooted in the labor movement. Korstad’s subject is a Communist-led union of mostly black tobacco workers in Jim Crow North Carolina. Excluded from the political sphere and dominated at work, these workers fought back by leading a successful unionization drive in the 1940s at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Winston-Salem’s most powerful employer. The unionized workers toppled racial hierarchies on the shop floor, won political power in the electoral arena, and shook the foundations of white supremacy in the city. “While the Communist-led union ultimately collapsed under the weight of red-baiting,” Jacobin’s Shawn Gude writes, “the history of Local 22 reminds us of the essential role socialists played in the black freedom struggle — and provides us with a compelling portrait of anti-racist organizing and democratic struggle.”
Often overlooked in favor of her male counterparts, Ella Baker was one of the most important civil rights organizers in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. She served as a field secretary for the NAACP, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and mentored the young activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But more important than any of her particular positions was Baker’s commitment to building up leaders and organizers, believing in the ability of oppressed people to emancipate themselves. For a vivid portrait of what that looked like in practice, you can also read I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne’s exceptional book about civil rights organizing in the Mississippi Delta.
Published in 2016, this is still the best book on Black Lives Matter. Taylor locates the explosion of the movement in young black people’s disillusionment with Barack Obama, and sharply criticizes mainstream anti-racist politics, which puts “black faces in high places” without improving the material conditions of poor and working-class African Americans. Capitalists, Taylor argues, use racism to divide workers while enriching themselves. We need a mass working-class movement to root out white supremacy and attack the economic system that delivers so little to so many. “Black liberation,” Taylor writes, “is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.”
Black sharecroppers in 1930s Alabama existed in conditions a step or two removed from chattel slavery. Crushed with debt, bereft of their own land to till, tenant farmers lived under the crushing boot of the landlord. Kelley’s book details the harrowing efforts of sharecroppers to organize, aided by the Communist Party. Sharecroppers and their families were beaten and terrorized; organizers received the same treatment. But these “Black Belt Communists,” Kelley writes, were successful in bringing a mode of organizing that, while “resonat[ing] with the cultures and traditions of black working people . . . offered something fundamentally different: a new kind of politics that required the self-activity of people usually dismissed as inarticulate.”
Black history is often reduced to the history of black leaders. Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet is one of the most brilliant rebuttals of this tendency. The book traces black politics at the grassroots level from slavery to the beginning of Jim Crow and shows that even in the most oppressive circumstances, black freedom was advanced through the collective political action of ordinary people.
Three and a half decades after it first appeared, Manning Marable’s Race, Reform, and Rebellion remains the best single-volume treatment of the civil rights movement. Marable was a leading Marxist, and his book is distinguished from most histories of the movement by its scrupulous focus on the politics of the movement at different moments. At each point, Marable reconstructs the debates within the movement, from how to respond to McCarthyism to the rise of Black Power. It’s a tremendously useful book for activists today, demonstrating that political debate was the lifeblood of the movement, and that the questions activists raised in the 1960s about where to go next are similar to the questions we confront today.
In these pages, you’ll find Martin Luther King Jr defending W. E. B. Du Bois’s radical politics (“It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a communist”), calling on the marginalized to revolt (“The dispossessed of this nation . . . live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice”), and denouncing US imperialism (“Our government felt . . . that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long”). A one-stop shop for debunking the myths of the moderate King.
Deborah Gray White’s book is a thoughtful and searching history of black women’s activism from the late nineteenth century to the 1990s. Examining groups from the self-consciously middle-class and respectable National Association of Colored Women, to the insurgent National Welfare Rights Organization, White considers the way that class and gender have fractured movements for black equality. Though the book is written for a popular audience, and is refreshingly nonacademic, it mounts a sustained argument against simplistic ideals of racial unity by detailing the struggles of black women’s organizations.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include at least one book from the Jacobin series. In Toward Freedom, Touré Reed argues that the road to a more just society for black Americans and everyone else is obstructed, in part, by a mainstream discourse that divorces racism from class, equates entrepreneurialism with freedom and independence, and insists that the sway of a metaphysical conception of racism is responsible for persisting racial inequality in US society.
In his blurb for the book, Cornel West writes: “Touré Reed is the most brilliant historian of the black freedom movement of his generation. This book is the best grasp of our recent past and guide for a progressive future we have!”