The film Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr., focuses on the Alabama city in 1965, when a protest for voting rights turned tragically violent. The outcry over the images of black men and women being beaten by police galvanized the nation and helped secure civil rights that were merely theoretical. Fifty years later, as we prepare to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s hard to ignore the parallels in the film as the rallying cries “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe” demand similar change and social justice today.
To dig deeper into the real lives of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and others depicted in the film, here are some excellent books, many written by the people who were there for these pivotal years in American history.
Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures
Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-65
In the second volume of his three-part history that began with Parting the Waters (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award), Taylor Branch delves into the Civil Rights Movement at its height. As he explains in the introduction “[Dr.] King’s life is the best and most important metaphor for American history in the watershed postwar years.”
Walking with the Wind
Congressman Lewis, now 74, is the only living “Big Six” leader of the Civil Rights Movement who organized the march on Washington in 1963. As depicted in Selma, he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end legalized racial discrimination and segregation. His award-winning memoir, first published in 1999, details his belief in non-violence and working with his mentor Dr. King.
An Easy Burden: The Civil Rights Movement and the Transformation of America
One of the most important figures in the Civil Rights movement recalls working with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and talks about his life up through his election to Congress in 1972 in this memoir.
Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin
A key but under-appreciated early leader of the Civil Rights movement, Bayard Rustin (played in Selma by Ruben Santiago-Hudson) introduced Dr. King to Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence. He was forced to keep a lower profile since he was gay, an arrestable offense at the time. He’d also spent much of World War II in prison since, as a Quaker, he’d refused to serve. Like Alan Turing (whose story is told in The Imitation Game), his contributions are only now being realized in retrospect.
Bus Ride to Justice: Changing the System by the System, the Life and Works of Fred Gray
The best-selling autobiography by acclaimed civil rights attorney Fred D. Gray (now 84), who represented Rosa Parks after her 1955 arrest and Dr. King and the group that organized the famous Montgomery bus boycott. He also argued several landmark civil rights cases in voting rights (as seen in Selma, where he’s played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), education, housing, employment, and jury selection.
Beware of Limbo Dancers: A Correspondent’s Adventures with the New York Times
Reed joined the New York Times in 1965 and one of his first assignments was covering the chaos of the protests in Selma, Alabama and the historical march to Montgomery. He later covered the Johnson White House and the early days of the Nixon administration.