The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Despite these powerful words, for many people in our country this has not been the case. In the over 200 years of America’s existence, women and minorities have often had to fight for these freedoms.
One of the most powerful and inspiring fights for freedom in our country occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, when African-Americans rallied together to fight segregation, voter suppression, and other injustices. It’s important for children (and adults!) to study this time period, to understand the struggle that the generations before us have faced. May we never take our freedoms for granted!
Freedom is the right of every man and woman, but it doesn’t come without a fight. It is my hope that these inspiring stories of people who were not afraid to stand up to injustice will inspire our children to do the same. While much has changed in our world, unfortunately bigotry and racism still exist. Studying the past can empower us to face the future, with the goal of creating a better world for everyone, no matter their race, religion, orientation, or nationality.
If you enjoy the books from this list, I encourage you to check out our list of 7 Picture Books About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Children’s Books About the Civil Rights Movement
The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson — Audrey Faye Hendricks was arrested for protesting in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. Though she was very young, she was not afraid to stand up to injustice and raise her voice for equality. This brand-new picture book is a great tool for teaching kids that they can make a difference at any age.
Rosa by Nikki Giovanni — The story of an amazing woman, told by another amazing woman! This gorgeous book paints the true picture of Rosa Parks, an activist who was willing to be arrested for her beliefs. This inspiring story is one every family should read.
Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story by Ruby Bridges — This early reader is perfect for introducing young elementary students to the story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was the first African-American child to integrate a New Orleans school, and the image of her bravely walking by a crowd of angry protesters has become iconic. This book tells her story in her own words. We purchased this book after learning more about Ruby at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and it’s become one of my second-grader’s favorites.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carol Boston Weatherford — Hatred, prejudice, and even physical violence could not keep Fannie Lou Hamer from speaking out about equal voting rights. This must-read picture book tells her story, and shows her importance in shaping and empowering the Civil Rights Movement, particularly during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Women Who Broke the Rules: Coretta Scott King by Kathleen Krull — The devoted wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an important activist in her own right. This short chapter book tells about her early life, her participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, her work to help pass the Civil Rights Act, and the founding of the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. A great read for school-aged kids.
Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement by Ann Bausum — John Lewis and Jim Zwerg had different skin colors, different backgrounds, and different upbringings. However, they both believed that all people should have the same fundamental rights. This belief brought them together as Freedom Riders. This incredibly informative book is an excellent choice for middle grade readers.
A Picture Book of Thurgood Marshall by David A. Adler — Thurgood Marshall is best known as the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court, but he was also a man who devoted his life to fighting against injustice and championing equality. Adler’s excellent book shows how he overcame racial barriers to become a successful and influential leader.
Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Would Grow Up to Become Malcolm X by Illyasah Shabazz — Malcom X was a controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement, but he did important work and left an important legacy behind. I love this book not only for the beautiful story and the illustrations, but also because it paints Malcolm not as a character but as a real person, whose experiences shaped his beliefs and actions. This book was written by Malcolm’s daughter, and is a fascinating look at an important life.
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim — Before John Lewis was a civil rights activist, and before he was a United States Representative, he was a young boy who wanted to be a preacher. He practices by preaching to the chickens on his farm. This is a gorgeous book that gives the reader a unique peek into the life of an influential leader.
She Stood for Freedom: The Untold Story of a Civil Rights Hero, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland by Loki Mulholland — Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was only 19 years old when she got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a Freedom Rider in the summer of 1961. She was arrested, put on death row for a time, beaten, and called a race traitor — but none of that stopped her from fighting injustice. This is a compelling look at a little-known hero.
Heroes for Civil Rights by David A. Adler — This excellent book profiles various heroes of the civil rights movement, including lesser known figures like Ralph Abernathy, Medgar Evers, James Meredith, Fred Shuttlesworth, Earl Warren, and more. This is an excellent book that I recommend every parent or teacher add to their collection.
Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton — This book by the daughter of activist Andrew Young shows what the Civil Rights Movement was like for a young black girl at the time. Her parents moved from New York back to the deep south to get involved in the movement, and Paula eventually joined in the fight as well.
Important Events and Stories
Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford — This historical fiction book tells the story of a young girl who likes to shop downtown with her mother. All over the city, there are signs telling black people where they can and can’t go. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visits the city, her brother and sister join the NAACP, and soon they are sitting where they’ve always been told they should not. This beautiful story is a great way to introduce children to the Greensboro Sit-Ins.
If You Were a Kid During the Civil Rights Movement by Gwendolyn Hooks — Sometimes it’s hard for kids today to understand what life under segregation was like. Books like this one, told through the eyes of children, can make it easier for them to comprehend. Two young girls find themselves in the middle of enormous change as civil rights demonstrations take place in their town. This book is coming out in February, and I highly recommend pre-ordering or looking for it at your library!
Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds — December 1, 1955 is just a normal day for a young boy and his mother — that is, until a commotion breaks out on the city bus they are riding. This compelling tale of the arrest of Rosa Parks will transport children to another time and place.
Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney — This simple, straightforward book tells the story of the Greensboro sit-ins in a way that even young children can understand. This book is a great choice for a classroom read aloud or homeschool unit on the sit-ins. Brian Pinkney’s gorgeous illustrations are the perfect complement to the story.
White Water by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein — Inspired by Bandy’s own experiences as a child, this book focuses on a little boy who just wants a cool drink of water. The water at the fountain reserved for blacks is warm and rusty, and he wonders: is the water in the White water fountain better? He is determined to find out. A beautiful illustration of why separate is not equal.
A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson — This one never fails to bring tears to my eyes! Two little girls sneak out of their house and head across town to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak. In the air is a sweet smell of roses, which seems to signify promise and hope. This is a truly beautiful book that shows the power of children, both then and now.
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles — Joe’s best friend is John Henry, the son of the woman who cleans his family’s house. They love to play and swim together, but they have to swim at the pond; John Henry isn’t allowed at the town pool. The boys are thrilled when they hear that a change in the law will allow them to visit the pool together. However, their excitement soon fades when they realize the town’s reaction to change. I recently read this book with my second-grader and it lead to a lot of great discussion.
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