A Mighty Girl's top 40 books for children and teens about heroic girls and women who fought for justice during the Civil Rights Movement.
From the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, school integrations, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, the Selma to Montgomery marches, we hear many stories about the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement, but so many are about the remarkable men in leadership positions at the time. But what of the women? What of the girls? Rosa Parks’ story is a powerful and important one, but surely hers can’t be the only story of courageous girls and women in the Civil Rights era.
In this post, we highlight numerous books for both children and teens that tell the stories of girls and women's contributions to the monumental events of this period and to the national movement to bring full civil rights and equality under the law to all Americans. By sharing these stories of past champions of civil rights, we can inspire the current generation of Mighty Girls to be the champions of the future.
For more books about the experience of African-American girls and women throughout history, visit our African-American History & Historical Fiction collection.
Heroes of the Movement: Biographies
From Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old child who desegregated the first elementary school in the South, to Rosa Parks, whose refusal to switch seats on a bus is only one example of her devotion to civil rights causes, there are many Mighty Girls and women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. These books will teach children and teens about these heroes and their dedication to justice.
To kids today, the idea of a child having to be escorted to school by armed guards to protect her from an angry mob is shocking, but 6-year-old Ruby Bridges faced exactly that in 1960. After a judge ordered that Ruby should attend the previously all-white William Frantz Elementary School, parents withdrew their children and held angry protests in front of the school. This compelling depiction of the child who became a civil rights hero just by attending first grade is now available in a special anniversary edition. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
Paula Young Shelton, the daughter of Civil Rights activist Andrew Young, grew up in a world where everyone she knew was dedicated to the fight for equality. Even children knew the injustice of segregation — she recalls crying loudly when owners of a restaurant refused to seat her family in "my very first protest, my own little sit-in." And as she grew, her understanding of her father's cause grew, until it became her own and she too marched from Selma to Montgomery. In this unique child's eye view of the Civil Rights struggle, Shelton balances honesty about the struggles her father and his friends faced with the sense of hope that drove them forward.
When kids hear about Rosa Parks' defiant refusal to move seats, they may think that it takes special courage to take that big a step — but the reality is that ordinary people can do incredible things! This title from Meltzer's Ordinary People Change The World series shows how Parks' willingness to stand up for justice began with small moments from childhood, but became a driving force in her life that made her a major figure for the Civil Rights movement. For more books about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
Many people know her only as Coretta Scott King, but she holds her own place in Civil Rights history for her work both before and after her husband's death. In this poetic picture book, Ntozake Shange captures her childhood — including defining moments like walking five miles to the colored school while the white kids' bus showered her with dust — to the marches at Selma and Washington, and ends with stirring images of protesters set to lines from the gospel song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round." A prose biography at the end encourages kids to learn more. This evocative book is a powerful way to introduce this key figure of history. Kids can learn more in Coretta Scott King: I Kept On Marching (ages 7 to 10). For more books about King, visit our Coretta Scott King Collection.
In this book, Ruby Bridges tells her own story in simplified text for newly independent readers! With carefully chosen vocabulary suitable for developing readers, Bridges provides a clear explanation of segregation and how it affected everyone, including school children, in the 1950s. Historical photographs of Bridges herself, as well as signs for segregated restaurants and protest signs objecting to desegregating schools, bring the topic to life. Kids will be amazed to imagine that Bridges was learning to read — just like them — when she had to walk past those angry mobs to go to school. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
It wasn't just the US that wrestled with segregation and civil rights; Canada has its own civil rights heroes, among them this savvy businesswoman who found herself the center of the fight for equality when she sat down in a movie theater. When Viola Desmond bought her ticket in 1946, she was arrested after refusing to move from the main floor to the balcony. The varying perspectives in this book capture the emotional intensity of Desmond's trial, and Richard Rudnicki's illustration depict her as a confident woman who was determined not to give way.
When Richard and Mildred fell in love, they quickly realized getting married would be a problem: in Virginia, interracial marriage was actually a felony. The couple got married in Washington, D.C., but when they moved home, they were arrested and tried. So they decided to challenge the law, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — and, in 1967, the court's decision overturned all the existing state bans on interracial marriages. This picture book perfectly tells the story of this quietly determined couple, and an author and artist's note provides more detail about the importance of the case. Older kids can learn about this case in Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case for ages 10 and up.
Audrey was only 9 years old, but that didn't mean she didn't listen when the grown-ups talked about wiping out Birmingham's segregation laws. So when she heard them say that they were going to picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails! — she stepped right up and said, "I'll do it!" This newly release picture book biography of the youngest person to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham proves that there's no such thing as being too young to make a difference.
How did Rosa Parks grow up to be brave enough not just to keep her seat on a bus, but also to make contributions to the Civil Rights movement over decades? This book from American Girl's new biography series follows Parks through her childhood, highlighting the defining moments that shaped her character and led to the one history-making moment that most people remember first. In addition, the book includes a timeline, a glossary, and a story about a noteworthy modern girl who is following in Parks' footsteps! This early chapter book about Parks is a great choice for emerging readers. For more resources about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
By the time she was 19, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland had been arrested more than once for her work to support the Civil Rights Movement. She joined the Freedom Riders — and was sent to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary. She was the first white person to join the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins in Jackson, Mississippi. And she joined Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington and Selma voting rights marches. This picture book biography sheds light on a little known leader of the Civil Rights Movement whose story is now being told. Older readers can learn her story in She Stood For Freedom (Middle Grade Edition), which is suitable for ages 8 to 12.
Throughout American history, there were bold, daring black women who broke all expectations and boundaries to make the world a better place! In this book, author/illustrator Vashti Harrison introduces young readers to forty trailblazing women, including Civil Rights heroes like Marian Anderson, Audre Lord, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges. This appealing book reminds young readers that every great leader began as a little leader, taking their first steps towards something big.
It's one thing to hear Ruby Bridges' story in the third person, but in this remarkable book, you get to hear her story through her own eyes. In simple language, Bridges recounts the experience of simultaneously knowing that she was part of a bigger era in history, yet still being a child who didn't fully understand why people were so angry at her. With additional material including photographs, sidebars about Bridges' influence in popular culture, and an update on her later life and civil rights work, this volume creates a newly complex portrait of this iconic figure. For more books about Bridges, visit our Ruby Bridges Collection.
The "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" gets her own entry in the popular Who Was...? biography series! This accessible biography introduces the influences in Rosa Parks' life that led her to devote her life to the cause of civil rights. Useful sidebars and timelines help kids understand both Parks' work and the overarching progress of the Civil Rights movement. Engaging and accessible, it's a great way to introduce middle grade readers to this inspiring figure. For more books about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
Ten women who contributed to the fight for equal rights, from Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman during the time of slavery to Rosa Parks and Fannie Hamer during the Civil Rights era, each get their own profile in this inspiring book. Andrea Davis Pinkney's text bursts with admiration for these dedicated campaigners for abolition, desegregation, and women's rights, while her use of colloquialisms and vivid description will have kids flipping the pages to find out what happens. Each profile is accented by a dramatic, stylized portrait from Alcorn. This lively book will bring history to life for young readers.
"I am sick and tired of being sick and tired", Hamer once famously proclaimed, and that sentiment drove her to be a champion of civil rights for over two decades. Her booming oratorical voice and her signature song "This Little Light of Mine" became a key part of the movement, including the Freedom Summer of 1964; her speech at the Democratic National Convention aired on national news despite interference from President Johnson and spurred people to action. Told in the first person, this book's lyrical text and collage illustrations depict the perseverance and courage of this heroic woman.
When the Little Rock Nine defied their state's governor to integrate Central High, Elizabeth Eckford didn't get the message to meet the group — so she faced entering the school alone. A local photographer snapped an iconic photograph of a girl jeering at Elizabeth as she stoically walked through the protesting crowd, and that photograph focused the world's attention — and disapproval — on Little Rock's resistance to desegregation. Shelley Tougas' tale of determination and bravery ends with an important postscript to the story: decades later, Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan Massery, the screaming girl in the picture, met and achieved a reconciliation. Touching and heartwrenching, this book captures the power of a single person's photograph to bring change.
Tweens can learn Rosa Parks' story in her own words in this compelling autobiography! Parks' word provide a fresh take on both her famous act of defiance on a Montgomery bus and the many other contributions she made to the Civil Rights movement. In her stirring story, she tells of a childhood listening warily for members of the Ku Klux Klan in the night; time as a secretary for the NAACP; and the experience of becoming a symbol to a nation-wide movement. This book provides a more complex picture of both Parks herself and of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. For more resources about Parks, visit our Rosa Parks Collection.
Marian Anderson never intended to become a symbol of equal rights; she just knew that she had to sing. But in the 1920s and 1930s, social constraints limited the careers of black performers. Anderson's voice, though, could not be silenced and she achieved international acclaim despite segregation in the arts. But thanks to the help of influential admirers — including Eleanor Roosevelt — her landmark concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 signaled a change for this history of art. This well-researched and expertly told book includes a bibliography, a discography, and an excellent examination of the cultural and social context of Anderson's life turned her into a civil rights icon.
As a child, Melba Pattillo Beals saw Klansmen hang a man from the rafters during a prayer meeting; as a teen, she was almost raped when she was unknowingly taken to a KKK meeting. And throughout, she asked tough questions: why should she have to drink from a separate fountain, or live her life feeling unsafe? The adults in her life wanted her to keep quiet out of fear, but she refused: she knew there was a future where she could live free — and as one of the Little Rock Nine, she made her mark on history. This newly released biography captures the courage and determination of Beals and the other child activists like her who pushed for change.
In every civil rights battle, children and teens took their parts too. This book collects the stories of thirty African Americans who were children or teens during the 1950s and 1960s. Each of them describes what it was like to grow up in a segregated America, how it felt to participate in protests, sit-ins, and school integrations, and the realities of the hatred, violence, and legal threats they faced as they did so. These powerful stories serve as a reminder that it took everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to fight for the rights African-American people deserved.
Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin did the same — but instead rather than receiving support, she found herself shunned by classmates and dismissed by community leaders. And yet she remained determined to effect change, and a year later, she challenged Jim Crow laws again by becoming one of the key plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle, a landmark court case. This National Book Award winner shines a light on an important but little-known figure from Civil Rights history.
Lynda Lowery was the youngest marcher in the 1965 Selma protest, but her youth never protected her; she had been arrested eleven times, and sent to jail nine times, before her fifteenth birthday. This gripping memoir captures the experience of being a teenage protester in Selma, from the constant threats of violence to the inhumane "sweatbox" steel cell where she and twenty other girls were imprisoned until they all passed out. And yet, Lowery's memoir is one of home and optimism: while she doesn't shy away from the realities of what protesters faced, she highlights that she suffered these ordeals in order to change American history for the better.
Melba Patillo turned sixteen in 1957, the same year that she became an unwitting warrior for desegregation. As one of the Little Rock Nine, she faced a firestorm of opposition as she entered the previously all-white Central High. In a harrowing ordeal, Melba faced everything from taunts to threats to an attack with acid that injured her eyes, but she never gave up her courage or her dignity. "Searing" is exactly the right description this affecting story of friendship, faith, and personal commitment.
Fighting for justice: Historical Fiction
In order to understand the impact the Civil Rights Movement has had on American history, kids need to learn what life was like before these hard-fought changes. These works of historical fiction depict life during segregation, as well as the fierce resistance that civil rights campaigners and groundbreakers faced every day.
Belle is looking forward to an exciting summer: Grandmama Coles is touring the South with a swing jazz band, and Belle gets to come! But while the places she visits are new, some things are just the same... like the segregation Belle and Grandmama face at every stop. When Grandmama sings, though, everyone comes to listen, and Grandmama says she can see a day when people are united all the time. "That's the kind of world I want for you," she tells Belle. This book doesn't shy away from the realities of segregation, but the optimistic tone highlights the power of art to bring people together.
When Connie and her mother go shopping at Woolworth's, they can have a soda as a treat — but they have to drink them standing up, since African Americans aren't allowed at the lunch counter. In fact, all over town there are signs telling Connie where she can't go. Then, one day, her father says that Dr. King is coming to town, and soon Connie gets to see her older brother and sister joining the sit-in protests, in hopes that someday, anyone can sit down where they please. Carole Weatherford perfectly captures a child's perspective, but still conveys an important message about the power of peaceful protest.
Clover's mother has always warned her against crossing the fence to the side of town where the white people live. But when she's intrigued by Anna, her free-spirited white neighbor, the two girls come up with the perfect solution: neither of them has to cross the fence if both of them sit on top of it. Soon, all the children are gathering to play together, resting on top of the fence, and agreeing that "Someday somebody's going to come along and knock this old fence down." This poetic story celebrates the power of children to look past prejudice.
A little girl and her sister sneak out of the house, down the street to where men and women are gathering for a protest march. In the air is the sweet smell of roses; in their minds, the sweet hope of justice and equality. Inspired by the many children who also participated in protests and marches, Johnson has written a poetic tribute to the spirit of optimism that pervaded the Civil Rights movement, perfectly accented with Velasquez' charcoal illustrations, where small pops of color illuminate key details like the ribbon on a teddy bear, the roses, and the American flag.
Today is election day, and nothing — not even the steep hill she has to climb to get to the polling station — will keep 100-year-old Lillian from placing her ballot. As she walks, she remembers the path through history that resulting in her path to the polls: her great-grandfather, voting for the first time after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment; her parents, trying and failing to register to vote; and her own participation, many years ago, in a protest march from Selma to Montgomery. This vivid story of one woman's determination provides an apt metaphor for the determination of those who fought for equal rights for all.
Ella Mae is excited when she outgrows her hand-me-down shoes — for the first time, she'll get a new pair of her very own! But when they go to the shoe store, Ella Mae and her mother discover the shop owner only allows white people to buy. Determined to fight back, Ella Mae and her friend Charlotte create their own business, gathering used shoes and repairing and polishing them to perfection. And at their shoe sale, the African American members of their community get to "try on all the shoes they want." This story provides an introduction to the concept of segregation, but also a powerful message of optimism.
In this story-within-a-story, a granddaughter listens raptly as her grandmother tells her a tale of the segregated South. As a child, she saw a water fountain labelled with a sign reading "Whites only." Innocently, she misinterpreted the sign to mean that she could only drink if she stood at the fountain in her white socks, so she kicked off her shoes... only to get pulled away by an angry white man, threatening to whip her. However, the African American adults nearby rallied to her aid, one by one kicking off their own shoes and taking their own deep drinks from the fountain. The depiction of segregation in this story is simplified to make it more accessible to young readers, but the message is clear: judging people by the color of their skin is as silly as judging them by the color of their socks.
After lots of hard work, Ruth's family have bought a car! Now they can take an adventurous journey from their home in Chicago to grandma's home in Alabama. But the roadtrip becomes more difficult than they expected when they discover that many gas stations, hotels, and restaurants won't serve black people. Fortunately, a kind gas station attendant introduces them to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook listing places across the country where their family will be welcomed. With The Green Book in Ruth's hands, the family can finally look forward to the joyful reunion. This fascinating and little-known piece of history makes a unique subject for a picture book; an endnote includes more information about The Green Book.
There's talk in town about the new sixth-grade teacher at Shady Creek. Word is spreading quickly -- Mrs. Smyre is like no other teacher anyone has ever seen around these parts. She's the first African American teacher. It's 1969, and while black folks and white folks are cordial, having a black teacher at an all-white school is a strange new happening. For 12-year-old Sarah Beth, there are so many unanswered questions. What is all this talk about Freedom Riders and school integration? Why can't she and Ruby become best friends? And who says school isn't for anybody who wants to learn -- or teach? In a world filled with uncertainty, one very special teacher shows her young students and the adults in their lives that change invites unexpected possibilities.
With the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, Dawnie's world is turned upside down. Now, she has to attend a previously all-white school — alone, without her friends beside her — and face the harsh realities of angry reactions to enforced integration. Dawnie struggles to prove that she deserves the opportunity for a good education, but when her father loses his job and her brother is bullied, she questions whether it is all worth it. Fortunately, Dawnie has the determination to face these challenges head on, in hopes that others won't face them in the future. This book from the popular Dear America historical fiction series captures the reality of what many students faced every day on the journey to school integration.
All the adults say that Greenwood, Mississippi, is being invaded in the summer of 1964: invaded by people coming from the North to help African Americans register to vote. Sunny's biggest worry at the start of the Freedom Summer is her own little invasion: the new stepmother and siblings crowding her home and her life. But through a series of unexpected events, Sunny finds herself put in a position where she has to make a choice: how can she stand up for herself and those who need her help and fight or what is right? This riveting novel is sure to prompt discussion about how young people can be involved in the battle against injustice.
On the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ended legal school segregation, this astounding book was published in remembrance of the struggle to achieve this milestone of civil rights. Acclaimed author Toni Morrison uses archival photographs as the inspiration for a fictionalized account of the lives of children during the time of "separate but equal" schooling. By focusing on ordinary people, including children, and their roles in ending school segregation, Morrison has created a much needed reminder of the importance of this moment in American history.
Glory has always looked forward to celebrating her July 4th birthday at the community pool. But in 1964, the summer she turns 12, that proves to be complicated. The town is in an uproar: Yankee "freedom people" are insisting that the pool be desegregated, and in response, the town has closed the pool "for repairs" indefinitely. As the conflict continues, and Glory comes of age, she begins to look beyond her own situation and see the closure of the pool in the context of the broader world. This memorable story captures the thoughts and feelings of a girl caught on the cusp of adulthood and facing true injustice she had never noticed before.
Billie Simms may only be 13, but she is already determined to see an end to segregation in her hometown of Anniston, Alabama — even if few people agree with her. When she hears that the Freedom Riders will pass through Anniston, Billie hopes that the town will see the justice in their cause; instead, they show the depths of their racism and prejudice. With the buses about to move on, Billie has to decide what to do: stay safe at home, or join the cause she believes in so passionately. In addition to the presentation of historical events, this novel explores Billie's developing awareness of her own internalized racism, which provides an intriguing starting point for discussion about racial issues of today.
It's 1958, and twelve-year-old Marlee struggles at school, friendless and shy to the point of silence outside of her own family... until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Fearless and determined, Liz knows just what to say to quiet the resident mean girl and to encourage Marlee to find her voice. Then, one day, Liz is gone; rumor has it that she was only passing as white. But Marlee decides that she doesn't care: Liz is her best friend, and Marlee will do anything — even face the danger that comes with standing up against segregation — to have her friend back by her side. Heartfelt and satisfying, this story of friendship and the fight for justice will make young readers cheer.
Dani's Grandma Beans hasn't spoken to Avadelle Richardson for decades, and no one seems to know why. But after a cryptic message from Grandma Beans, Dani decides to investigate, and with the help of her friends she uncovers a whole history of their hometown in Oxford, Mississippi that they'd never heard before: segregation, violence, race riots, and a betrayal that cut Grandma Beans to the bone. For kids who usually hear a sanitized version of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, this book will open their eyes to the brutality of the process — and to the injustices that linger to this day.
12-year-old Sylvia is an honor student who is both thrilled and scared to be selected as one of the students to integrate Central High School in 1957 Little Rock. Unlike her older brother, she doesn't want to be a hero; she just wants a chance to learn. And as the racism in Little Rock explodes — and even members of Sylvia's own community speak out against integration — Sylvia starts to wonder if she would be better off in the black-only school, focusing on getting to college instead of changing the world. With an ending that will surprise young readers, this book is sure to prompt discussion, beginning with the question, "What would I have done?"
Additional Recommended Resources
- For more books about the struggle for civil rights and liberties, visit our Top Mighty Girl Books About Civil Rights History.
- For more resources about some of the key figures mentioned above, visit our Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and Coretta Scott King collections.
- For books about social issues relating to prejudice, visit our selection of books about Racial / Ethnic Discrimination.
- For more books for Black History Month, visit our African American History Collection.