11 Memoirs by Civil Rights Activists

Inspired by the recent protests? Want to learn more about Black liberation movements of the past? Here are 11 autobiographies by iconic activists to get you started.

Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael" by Stokely Carmichael and John Edgar Wideman (2003)
Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, had the unique distinction being both chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-'60s and, later, Honorable Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. More than most, Carmichael had ample firsthand experience with both the nonviolent wing of the Civil Rights movement and the burgeoning Black Power movement, though ultimately he sided with the latter. This posthumously-published memoir tells the full story of his revolutionary life.

Angela Davis--an Autobiography by Angela Y. Davis (1974)
From her days as a prominent spokeswoman for the Black Panther Party to her current work as an academic, lecturer, and advocate for prison abolition, Angela Y. Davis may be the single most influential activist of the post-Civil Rights era. This autobiography, published just two years after she was cleared of the charges for which she was famously incarcerated for 16 months, is an invaluable record of her early life and radical career.

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as A Slave, His Escape From Bondage, and His Complete History by Frederick Douglass (1881)

Frederick Douglass' life is an unparalleled time capsule into the freedom struggles of the 19th century: born into slavery in 1817, he successfully taught himself to read, escaped to the North, became a prominent abolitionist and writer who met and influenced presidents, and thenafter Emancipationcontinued to fight for the rights of African Americans and women until his death in 1895. This memoir, his third and last, provides the most complete firsthand account of his legacy.

Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept by W.E.B. DuBois (1940)
This late work by legendary sociologist, historian, and activist W.E.B. DuBois blends autobiographical details about DuBois' career⁠—including his relationship with Booker T. Washington and his break with the NAACP⁠—with an original and revolutionary analysis of race in America. DuBois was dedicated to a variety of liberation struggles throughout his long and illustrious life, and Dusk of Dawn provides a great introduction to his worldview.

When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele (2018)
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, a founding member of the Black Lives Matter movement, discusses her radical awakening in this recent memoir with a foreword by Angela Davis. Having faced racial discrimination all her life, Khan-Cullors was spurred to action following the 2013 killing of unnarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Alongside fellow organizers Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, Khan-Cullors kicked off the BLM movement, which came to national prominence in Ferguson in 2014 and has only continued to grow during the recent anti-racist protests worldwide.

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr" by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clayborne Carson (2001)

Martin Luther King, Jr. never actually wrote a full-length autobiography before his assassination in 1968, so this work, compiled from his various writings and interviews, is the closest we're likely to come to a true memoir by the Civil Rights icon. Clayborne Carson does an admirable job culling from many different primary sources, and the result is readable and informative.

Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton (1973)

Black Panther Party founder Huey P. Newton's autobiography, published just seven years after the BPP itself was officially formed, is one of the best firsthand sources available on the Party's early years and mission. It's also an astounding personal story, relating Newton's impoverished Oakland childhood, his self-guided journey to literacy, and the imprisonment which inspired the "Free Huey!" campaign. Newton's impressive intellect and critical role in the Black Power movement make this a can't-miss read for any aspiring activist.

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013 - 2016)

Like Angela Davis, John Lewis is a living Civil Rights legend. Born in rural Alabama in 1940, Lewis took part in the original Freedom Rides, became chairman of SNCC at age 23, marched on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., and has served in the House of Representatives since 1987. His three-volume autobiography March is particularly unique in that it takes the form of a graphic memoir, with excellent artwork by Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell supplementing Lewis' inspiring personal story.

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur (1988)
Few people have lived as radical a life as Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Movement who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life after a 1973 shootout with police⁠, only to escape prison and flee to Cuba in 1979. Written during her ongoing exile and cited as an influence by many subsequent activists, Assata: An Autobiography begins with the aftermath of the famous shootout, before going on to flesh out Shakur's life story and revolutionary worldview.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth (1850)
A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth also escaped from slavery and spent the rest of her life fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Hailed as both an iconic abolitionist and an important proto-feminist, Truth was, among many other distinctions, the first Black woman ever to successfully take her former master to court and free her enslaved child. This autobiography, published 11 years before the start of the Civil War, describes Truth's early life, escape from slavery, and first years of freedom and activism.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley" by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
This autobiography, compiled by Alex Haley from a series of interviews conducted shortly before Malcolm X's assassination, might be the most famous memoir of anti-racist activism ever written. Malcolm X's sharp, personable, and opinionated storytelling makes for an immersive read, and his journey from rural Michigan to the streets of Boston and Harlem to the global activism of his final years is as informative as it is inspiring.

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