Know better, do better: a civil rights reading list

January 16, 2023 10:32 am
Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. | William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. John Lewis is second from left, his arm linked with that of labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph. (William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images)

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated two months before my fourth birthday in 1968 and Robert Kennedy, former U.S. attorney general and Democratic presidential candidate, was assassinated the day after I turned four. 

I remember Kennedy’s death, although not King’s, despite that King’s occurred in Memphis, just a couple of hundred miles west of my home. And, I don’t think my memories are correlated to any slight maturation that may have occurred in me during the two-month period separating the two men’s killings, but rather in how differently the events were treated.

I have an isolated memory of a bright sunny day during which my mother and I had gone to Nashville. “Mama, why did they only pull the flag halfway up?” I asked when we arrived outside the department store that was our destination. 

I can’t recall my mother’s exact words — something to the effect of ‘an important man was killed.’ Later in my life, I told her about the memory and asked her who the flag was at half-staff for: King or Kennedy?

“Bobby Kennedy,” she replied without hesitation. “No one here acknowledged Martin Luther King’s assassination that way.” 

Over the last decade, I have realized exactly how ignorant I am about King’s life and the Civil Rights Movement in general. Most Americans are familiar with the broad strokes of the “classic” era of the Movement during the 1960s: Jim Crow, Martin Luther King and the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. Upper-level Civil Rights knowledge might include the Mississippi murders of three volunteers during 1964’s “Freedom Summer,” the role of the late John Lewis — who became a revered congressman — and Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s attempts to block integration at the University of Alabama. 

As I was browsing in a Nashville used-bookstore in 2016, I found a paperback copy of David Halberstam’s “The Children.” The book was much lauded when it had come out 20 years prior and I knew it featured some writing about the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville. 

And so, I bought the book that changed my life. As silly as it may sound to say so, “The Children” did, indeed, cause an awakening in me. Halberstam, a legendary journalist, began his career at The Tennessean at the outset of the Movement and reported on the young Lewis and dozens of powerful young leaders from Nashville historically Black colleges. 

Until reading, I had not realized how very young — hence, the book’s title —  the key Nashville activists were. And while there was much I gleaned from the book, it was that revelation that made me realize what a privileged chump I was: mere kids, only 18 or 19 years old, regularly put their lives on the line time after time in pursuit of basic equality, from being able to use public transportation and restrooms, to eat a burger at lunchroom counter. I had no excuse to not get off the civic sidelines and find my own way to pursue progress and justice. 

There are many ways today to honor King’s life, through volunteer work or reflection. If you seek reflection, I suggest a handful of books I’ve read over the last few years in addition to “The Children.” This is clearly not an exhaustive list of literature on King or the struggle for civil rights, nor even all the books I’ve read of late; rather, they are but a few that have spoken to me, educated me and piqued my interest in studying more about the path to racial justice in America. 

I know more than I did a few years ago, but I have much, much more to learn. In the words of the late Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better,” a phrase of hope to those of us who have lived with blinders for too many years. 

  • “In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma,” Rev. Bernard LaFayette. LaFayette roomed with Lewis at Nashville’s American Baptist College, and the pair, along with fellow student James Bevel, were instrumental in the city’s lunch counter sit-ins. LaFayette provides a biographical account of the Selma, Alabama, voting rights campaign, which he led. In addition to recounting well-known stories like the assassination attempt on LaFayette — the same night NAACP leader Medgar Evans was murdered in Mississippi — LaFayette also shines a light on local champions of voting rights like the “Courageous Eight,” a group of Selma’s Black community and business leaders.
    Rev. Bernard LaFayette, speaking in November 2022 at American Baptist College. (Photo: John Partipilo)
    Rev. Bernard LaFayette, speaking in November 2022 at American Baptist College. (Photo: John Partipilo)

  • “I’ve Got the Light of Freedom,” Charles Payne. Payne’s book is a lengthy history of the organizing tradition in Mississippi in granular detail. The writer places organizing efforts in context of “systemic racial terrorism,” including lynchings. Relying on extensive interviews with participants in the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, Payne shows the heroism of “ordinary” Black Mississipians, like the fierce widow Laura McGhee and her three sons, all of whom didn’t hesitate to court danger in pursuit of their rights. 
  • “Hellhound on his Trail,” Hampton Sides. Sides’ book, subtitled “The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for his Assassin,” is a riveting account of how law enforcement tracked James Earl Ray after he shot and killed King. But it’s the early part of the book, which details Ray’s virulent racism, escape from prison and stalking of King across state lines that chilled me. 
  • “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” as told to Alex Haley. Historians will say this autobiography, released posthumously, needs to be taken with a grain of salt based on questions about Haley’s editing process and authorial contributions. But for the layman, it nonetheless gives a captivating portrait of Malcolm X from childhood to just before his death by assassins and serves as an entry point into further explorations of his life and beliefs through compilations of his speeches.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.