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Books to Help Kids Understand the Fight for Racial Equality

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

racial equality
Background image credit: Igor Vitkovskiy/Shutterstock

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law on August 6, 1965. By signing this legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson brought the authority of the federal government behind the battle to remove state-sanctioned disenfranchisement of Black American citizens. The murders of civil rights activists in Philadelphia and Mississippi and the attack by state troopers on peaceful marchers in Alabama (depicted in the film Selma) brought national attention that prompted the passage of the law, but many had been fighting for centuries to bring about this change.

Most of us know the “big” names and symbols of the civil rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, bus boycotts, images of horrific violence, thousands of all races marching to the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, we seem to know little else. In its report, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) notes that “Only 2% of high school seniors in 2010 could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.”

The fight for racial equality isn’t in the past, it’s current. Here are some books to help us move beyond tokens and icons to a deeper understanding of our history and its legacy, toward our own marches for liberty and justice for all.

  • Picture Books

  • Seeds of Freedom

    by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

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    Seeds of Freedom depicts the 18-month period during the 1960s when the residents of Huntsville, Alabama peacefully integrated their city and schools. Written by a former Huntsville resident in a present-tense, conversational tone, the story pays homage to the African American community in Huntsville and their creative grass-roots efforts to effect change. Author Hester Bass makes a point to place the events in Huntsville alongside coinciding desegregation attempts in the South that weren’t permitted to unfold peaceably, and emphasizes the work still to be done. Publishers Weekly calls Seeds of Freedom “unflinchingly honest and jubilantly hopeful.”
    (Ages 5 - 8)

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  • The Other Side

    by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

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    Woodson, whose just-about-every-award-winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming belongs on every reading list in the world, brings us two girls who don’t let a fence stop them from being friends. This seemingly simple friendship story is a powerful and lyrical tale of segregation, seeing humanity in all, and reaching out across boundaries.
    (Ages 5 - 8)

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  • Thurgood

    by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Bryan Collier

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    It would be impossible for any single biography to capture the spirit and influence of Thurgood Marshall, but this vibrant introduction to the NAACP lawyer — who came to be known as “Mr. Civil Rights” — is essential to the ongoing conversation about racial equality’s many champions. Delving into Marshall’s childhood in Baltimore in the early 1900s, his high school debate years, and his time at Howard University’s law school, Thurgood shows how one talkative boy embarked on a journey to become the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
    (Ages 5 - 9)

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  • Lillian’s Right to Vote

    by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

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    Written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lillian's Right to Vote tells the story of "a very old woman" named Lillian, who at 100 years old has seen a great many chapters in American history. As Lillian makes her way up a very steep hill on Voting Day, she is reminded of the enormous uphill battle faced by African Americans in the struggle for voting rights. Through Jonah Winter's poignant prose and Shane W. Evans's expressive illustrations, a new generation of young readers will learn about the long journey — from slavery to segregation, from poll taxes to protests and finally, legislation — to the ballot box.
    (Ages 5 - 9)

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  • Middle Grade

  • Brown v. Board of Education

    by Susan Goldman Rubin

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    This compelling behind-the-scenes narrative tells the story of the 1954 Supreme Court decision that aimed to put an end to school segregation in America. Middle grade readers will be fascinated by the rich stories of the individuals involved in the case, including the young student plaintiffs, their parents, and Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s lead attorney. Rubin’s thorough account includes backmatter with timelines and primary source texts, and her narrative extends to our present-day public school system that’s still contending with segregation — demonstrating that the road to justice is long and complicated.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer

    by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

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    Voice of Freedom shines a spotlight on activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer, who fought tirelessly for civil rights from the 1950s until her death in 1977. The events and details of Hamer’s life are recounted through striking poems and mixed-media collage illustrations that add layers of important historical context. The author-illustrator team doesn’t skirt around the fear and violence that Hamer and her contemporaries endured; they also celebrate her boldness, triumphs, and legacy that reaches into present day.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • The Lions of Little Rock

    by Kristin Levine

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    Fiction readers will appreciate this moving story about race and friendship set against the backdrop of 1958 Little Rock, Arkansas, when the governor was so opposed to school desegregation that rather than allow Black children into white schools, he ordered the closure of all local high schools. The book revolves around 12-year-olds Marlee and Liz, who develop a close friendship before Liz stops coming to school; it’s rumored she was caught passing for white. Liz and Marlee are determined to protect their friendship, no matter the obstacles.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Young Adult

  • March (Trilogy Slipcase Set)

    by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

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    Congressman John Lewis passed away in July 2020 at the age of 80, but his legacy will live on forever. Several years ago, my daughter saw Rep. Lewis speak, and the power of his words left a lasting impression — she devoured this book that same night. This gripping, award-winning graphic novel trilogy poignantly captures the strength of his memories, from his childhood as a sharecropper’s son to his participation in the movement and the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Rep. Lewis tells a tale of courage and perseverance that never seems didactic or forced. Teacher's Guides for Book One and Book Two are available for free download.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom

    by Lynda Blackmon Lowery, illustrated by PJ Loughran, as told to Elspeth Leacock and Susan Buckley

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    Lynda Blackmon Lowery was the youngest person to participate in the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Indeed, for her activist work alongside Martin Luther King Jr., she was arrested and jailed 11 times before her 15th birthday. This finely textured coming-of-age memoir gives a unique perspective on that fateful march that invites teen readers to walk in Lowery’s shoes; she also offers guidance on nonviolent protest, even when the police respond with violence. To keep the dialogue going in your family or classroom, the paperback edition includes an all-new discussion guide for reflection and follow-up activities.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Yes She Can

    compiled by Molly Dillon

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    An anthology that represents the present and future of the fight for racial equality, Yes She Can features the untold stories of ten female staffers who joined the Obama Administration during their early twenties. Each took a different path to public service, and each devoted herself to the momentous work at hand — as well as paved the way for a more inclusive government and country. The book opens with a foreword from activist and actor Yara Shahidi, who created the organization Eighteen x '18 to empower first-time voters.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Coming of Age in Mississippi

    by Anne Moody

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    This was one of the first memoirs of the movement that I read as a child, and I’ve saved that same copy for my own child. Moody shares in vivid and painful detail the aggressions that Blacks in the Jim Crow era faced each day. Moody went on to college and activism, working with various civil rights organizations. She was part of the history-making group of students who sat-in and prayed at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1963, while whites poured mustard and ketchup over their heads and used physical violence against them. Senator Edward M. Kennedy wrote in The New York Times, “Anne Moody’s powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.”
    (Young Adult)

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“Someday somebody’s going to come along and knock this old fence down,” says Annie in The Other Side. This is American history. All of our children should know what happened, why, and what it means in our lives today. And by making these and other stories of the battle for justice a part of our lives, we will continue to knock down fences and build brighter futures.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2020.