10 Historical Fiction Books to Read for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Posted on January 16, 2017 by

Today marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in honor of the the holiday and King’s fight for racial equality, we’ve rounded up a list of historical fiction books set around the Civil Rights Movement. Check them out, along with their publishers’ description, below.

 

Freshwater Road by Denise Nicholas

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The critically acclaimed debut novel from pioneering actress and writer Denise Nicholas tells the story of one young woman’s coming of age via the political and social upheavals of the civil rights movement.

Nineteen-year-old Celeste Tyree leaves Ann Arbor to go to Pineyville, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964 to help found a voter registration project as part of Freedom Summer. As the summer unfolds, she confronts not only the political realities of race and poverty in this tiny town, but also deep truths about her family and herself. Drawing on Nicholas’ own involvement in the movement, Freshwater Road was hailed by Newsday as “Perhaps the best work of fiction ever done about the civil rights movement.”

 

Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell

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Chicago-born Armstrong Todd is 15, black, and unused to the segregated ways of the Deep South when his mother sends him to spend the summer with relatives in her native rural Mississippi. For speaking a few innocuous words in French to a white woman, Armstrong pays the ultimate price when her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law decide to teach him a lesson. The lives of everyone involved in the incident — black and white — are changed forever, and the reverberations extend well into the next generation.

Resonant with the sorrows of poverty and racial prejudice as well as the triumphs of love and social justice, Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine marks the debut of a powerful, clear voice in contemporary fiction.

 

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

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Enter the hilarious world of 10-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron, who’s 13 and an “official juvenile delinquent.”

When Byron gets to be too much trouble, they head South to Birmingham to visit Grandma, the one person who can shape him up. And they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up.

 

Bombingham by Anthony Grooms

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In his barracks, Walter Burke is trying to write a letter to the parents of a fallen soldier, an Alabama man who died in a muddy rice paddy. But all he can think of is his childhood friend Lamar, the friend with whom he first experienced the fury of violence, on the streets of Birmingham, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The juxtaposition is so powerful — between war-torn Vietnam and terror-filled “Bombingham” — that he is drawn back to the summer that would see his transition from childish wonder at the world to his certain knowledge of his place in it.

Walter and Lamar were always aware of the terms of segregation — the horrendous rules and stifling reality. Their paper route never took them to the white areas of town. But that year, everything exploded. And so did Walter’s family. As the great movement swelled around them, the Burkes faced tremendous obstacles of their own. From a tortured past lingered questions of faith, and a terrible family crisis found its climax as the city did the same. In the streets of Birmingham, ordinary citizens risked their lives to change America. And for Walter, the war was just beginning.

 

And All Our Wounds Forgiven by Julius Lester

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When John Calvin Marshall graduated from Harvard in 1956, he was prepared for a life of teaching and relative tranquility. But history had another plan for him: here, a veteran author re-envisions the Martin Luther King Jr. story in fearful, exciting, and violent terms. Political and provocative, And All Our Wounds Forgiven is both a compelling political fable and a striking and tender love story about one of this century’s most charismatic black leaders and the two women he loved.

 

Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands by Susan Carol McCarthy

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Here is one of those rare and remarkable debuts that herald the appearance of a major new talent on the literary scene. Inspired by real events, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands is a wise and luminous story about a northern family, a southern town, and the senseless murder that sparks an extraordinary act of courage.

To this day, my family is in disagreement as to precisely when the nightmare began. For me, it was the morning Daddy and Luther discovered Marvin, beaten, shot, and dying, in the Klan’s stomping grounds off Round Lake Road. My brother Ren disagrees. He points to the small cluster of scars that begin just outside his left eye and trail horizontally across his temple to the top of his ear. Ren claims it started when the men in white robes took the unprecedented step of shooting at two white children. Others say it was when Mr. Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP and Mr. Hoover’s FBI came to town. Mother and Daddy shake their heads. In their minds, the real beginning was much earlier….

 

Grant Park by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

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Grant Park begins in 1968, with Martin Luther King’s final days in Memphis. The story then moves to the eve of the 2008 presidential election, and cuts back and forth between the two eras as it unfolds. Disillusioned and weary, columnist Malcolm Toussaint, fueled by yet another report of unarmed black men gunned down by police, hacks into his newspaper’s computer system to post an incendiary column that had been rejected by his editors. Toussaint then disappears, and his longtime editor, Bob Carson, is summarily fired within hours of the column’s publication.

While a furious Carson tries to find Toussaint — at the same time dealing with the reappearance of a lost love from his days as a 60s peace activist — Toussaint is abducted by two improbable but still-dangerous white supremacists plotting to explode a bomb at Obama’s planned rally in Grant Park. As Election Day unfolds, Toussaint and Carson are forced to remember the choices they made as idealistic, impatient young men, when both their lives were changed profoundly by their work in the civil rights movement. Forty years later, they are handed a bizarre opportunity to make peace with their respective pasts.

Grant Park is an audacious and eloquent take on politics, race, and history, and yet another demonstration that Pitts, beyond his identity as a lauded journalist, has emerged as an important voice in contemporary American fiction.

 

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

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In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.

Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.”

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.

Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.

 

The Good Negress by A.J. Verdelle

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Twenty years after its initial publication, The Good Negress continues to be an important part of the literary canon, as relevant and necessary as ever. Set in 1960s Detroit, the novel centers around Denise Palms, who leaves her grandmother’s home in rural Virginia to reunite with her mother, stepfather, and older brothers. As a black teenage girl, Denise is given scarce opportunity beyond cooking, cleaning, and raising her mother’s baby. But an idealistic, demanding teacher opens Denise’s eyes to a future she has never considered, and soon she begins to question the limits of the life prescribed to her.

With lyrical, evocative prose, A. J. Verdelle captures Denise’s journey from adolescence to womanhood as she navigates the tension between loyalty and independence, and between circumstance and desire. The Good Negress is an unforgettable debut — simultaneously the portrait of a family and a glimpse into an era of 20th-century America.

 

The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams

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On a warm spring afternoon in 1964, Max Reddick sits at an outdoor café in Amsterdam, nursing a glass of Pernod. Along with the large doses of morphine running through his veins, the alcohol allows him to forget the painful disease ravaging his body, but it also prompts him to reflect on the circumstances that have brought him to this point — made him who he is today.

From the streets of New York City to the jazz clubs of Paris and Amsterdam, from the battlefields of World War II to the Oval Office, Max’s journey as an African American author and journalist has brought him into the nexus of hypocrisy and duplicity surrounding segregation and civil rights time and again. But nothing he has encountered could have prepared him for the devastating and dangerous truth he now faces.

Through the eyes of Max, with penetrating fictional portraits of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, among other historical figures, author John A. Williams reveals the hope, courage, and bitter disappointment of African American intellectuals in the postwar era.

Infused with powerful artistry and searing anger, as well as insight, humanity, and vision, The Man Who Cried I Am is a modern American classic.

What books would you add to the list? Share in the comments!

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