Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is likely one of the most inspiring things you can read. As the title suggests, King wrote it in jail, and it is essentially a treatise in defense of nonviolent direct action. More broadly, it’s about doing something instead of nothing. It’s a call to action for anybody who sees anything wrong happening. It was written to rally clergymen to King’s cause, to convince them of the righteousness of breaking unjust laws.
It’s easy enough to find inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. quotes, so I chose specifically from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Hopefully, after you’ve read some of these excerpts, you’ll be motivated to read the letter in its entirety here.
1. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
2. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
3. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.
4. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
5. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
6. We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”
7. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
8. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will.
9. So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?
10. Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?
In celebration of Black History Month, we thought we’d give you a solid twenty books by and about people of color. Some are fiction, some nonfiction, and there’s even a little poetry in here. Twenty is a lot of books, but maybe you can read just one this month. It really doesn’t matter which—they’re all awesome! We promise.
1. Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin
Summary: “Trayvon Martin’s parents take the readers beyond the news cycle with an account only they could give: the intimate story of a tragically foreshortened life and the rise of a movement” (Barnes & Noble)
Why you should read it: This book will remind you of the issues and struggles faced by people of color in today’s society, and the very real inequalities suffered by young black men.
2. Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama
Summary: A memoir from the son of a black man and a white mother, trying to find his place and meaning in life as a black American. Follow along with Barack Obama as he traces back his family lines, all while learning more about himself and his father.
Why you should read it: Get an inside look on Barack Obama before the oval office, and how his family and journey as a black man shaped him to be the man he is today.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Image Via Amazon
Summary: This is a story about a 16-year-old girl who witnesses her childhood best friend get shot at the hands of a police officer, even though he was unarmed.
Why you should read it: Although fictional, stories like this have happened all around the country. See police brutality through the eyes of someone new, and how it affects the community in which it happened.
4. I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi
Summary: A collection of humorous essays that dissect cultural obsessions, Ajayi’s book loudly calls out bad behaviors in both our real and digital worlds. Subjects vary from cultural importance of television shows, to discussions of race and media representation.
Why you should read it: We all get swept up in pop culture and debates on the internet. It might be time to check yourself on the facts and the way you handle yourself on social media. During today’s political climate, this book will bring you the information you need to Do-Better.
5. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Summary: Cora is becoming a woman, while enslaved on a cotton plantation in Georgia. A new arrival from Virginia, Caesar, tells her about the underground railroad. It has the same purpose as the underground railroad we are familiar with, except it’s an actual railroad with conductors and engineers.
Why you should read it: Colson Whitehead brings together terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era and terrors faced today. This novel can bring things to light for its readers, while telling a compelling and powerful story of one woman.
6. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Summary: A semi-autobiographical novel, it follows John Grimes—an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem. This novel accounts for Grimes’ relationship to his family and church. The personal side focuses on the relationship between Grimes and his mother, his biological father, and his stepfather. It discusses the negative and positive impacts the Pentecostal Church had on the lives of African-Americans.
Why you should read it:Go Tell It On the Mountain was ranked 39th on Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, and was included in Time Magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. This novel is extremely influential and is a must-read for everyone.
7. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
Image Via Amazon
Summary: This book discusses issues specific to men of color and mass incarceration in the United States. Alexander notes that the discrimination faced is also prevalent among other minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged people as well. The central focus is within the title: “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow”.
Why you should read it: A lot of people believe the wicked Jim Crow laws are long gone, but they’ve just changed shape. Read this book to understand what is happening, and why.
8. Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr.
Summary: A collection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons that focus on racial segregation in the U.S., emphasizing permanent religious values. King reflects on his deep understanding for the need of agape, while discussing how we need to first face our fears in order to reach the better world he believes there is.
Why you should read it: The sermons included have shaped many movements around civil rights and are extremely important to remember today. King’s speeches and sermons are inspirational for everyone, reading this book could change your perspective on life while giving you an extra nudge to keep fighting.
9. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou by Maya Angelou
Summary: A collection of Maya Angelou’s poems, containing her reflections on African American life and hardship, celebration of womanhood, and tributes to influential people of her time.
Why you should read it: Angelou’s poetry shifted and shaped the world, inspiring and captivating both people of color and women. Every line and every word she writes serves its purpose. Angelou was highly influential, and everyone should have her poetry under their belts.
10. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X
Summary: Published in 1965, this book is the result of a collaboration between Malcolm X and Alex Haley. It’s based on a series of interviews held between Haley and Malcolm X between 1963 and Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965. It describes Malcolm X’s philosophy of black pride, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism.
Why you should read it: It’s impossible to fully understand the Civil Rights movement without understanding Malcolm X. There’s no better way to understand his mind than committing his autobiography to memory. And watching the movie.
11. Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin
Image Via Amazon
Summary: Slevin follows Michelle Obama from her working-class childhood in Chicago’s largely segregated South Side. Highlighting her tribulations at Princeton and Harvard Law School during racially charged times of the 1980s, to raising a family and helping Barack Obama become the President of the United States.
Why you should read it: One of the first detailed accounts of Michelle Obama’s life, showing the path of how she got to her seat as first lady. Read this novel to see how Michelle Obama has always strived to change the world.
12. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois
Summary: A collection of essays written focusing on race, Du Bois’ book takes from his own experiences as a black man in the United States.
Why you should read it: This book is extremely relevant to black history, and holds a special place in social science as one of the early works in sociology.
13. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Summary: Set after World War II, this play follows a family facing their own war against racism in Chicago. The Younger family of five lives in an apartment meant for three, building tension. When the patriarch of the household passes, the family comes into $10,000 from a life insurance check. Each member of the family has their own plans for what the money could go to.
Why you should read it: This play accurately depicts the lives of a family in post-WWII Chicago. It’s a classic, simple as that.
14. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Summary: A story that focuses on a young black woman from 1976, who finds herself jumping time between her present Californian life and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. She meets her ancestors and becomes entangled in the community, conflicting with her existence in her own time.
Why you should read it: There’s nothing like a socially conscious time travel story, and Butler’s the master.
15. The Known World by Edward P. Jones
Image Via Amazon
Summary: A historical novel published in 2003, set in pre-Civil War Virginia, Jones examines the issues regarding the ownership of black slaves by both black and white Americans.
Why you should read it: This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel takes on slavery in a very personal way. It’s pretty unforgiving and unforgettable.
16. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Summary: This book is written as a letter to the author’s teenage son about feelings, symbolism, and realities of being black in the United States. Coates explains American history and the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture” to his son.
Why you should read it: Published in 2015, this is a more recent and accurate telling of what it’s like to be black in America. Coates’ style of writing letters to his son creates a personal feeling to the book, and gives its readers a closer look into his thoughts.
17. Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Summary: This memoir recounts Jefferson’s life in the upper-crust of black Chicago, her father being the head of pediatrics at Provident Hospital, and her mother a socialite. She takes us into the insular and discerning society she grew up in. “I call it Negroland because I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible.”
Why you should read it: Jefferson gives a different perspective, showing the readers a glimpse into the world of the Talented Tenth. It showcases privilege, discrimination, and misconception of “post-racial” America.
18. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Summary: A collection of poetry sharing what it feels like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, seeing the shadow of Jim Crow and becoming aware of the Civil Rights movement.
Why you should read it: It’s a National Book Award winner and Woodson can do no wrong. It’s a great place to start!
19. Fences by August Wilson
Image Via Amazon
Summary: A play written in 1985 that explores the African American experience while examining race relations (and other themes). Troy, 53-years-old, is the focus of the play. He’s the head of the household who struggles providing for his family. It follows Troy’s struggles throughout his life, and the effects they have on his family.
Why you should read it: It was adapted into a film in 2016, and we all know the book is better. The play gives the readers a chance to see color barriers faced by people of color in the 50s, and how some were able to break that barrier.
20. The House That Race Built: Original Essays by Toni Morrison, Angela Y. Davis, Cornel West, and Others on Black Americans and Politics in America Today edited by Wahneema Lubiano
Summary: Essays from some of today’s most respected intellectuals that share their ideas on race, power, gender, and society.
Why you should read it: This collection of essays can shed light on issues you may not be aware of, or bring more knowledge on issues you’ve already known about. There’s no such thing as knowing too much about something.
Philanthropist and talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey, has finally let the word out on her newest pick for Oprah’s Book Club! Her self-titled “must-read” club can certainly be called a staple of American culture since she crafted and executed the idea in 1996. Her first pick twenty-two years ago was The Deep End of the Oceanby Jacquelyn Mitchard, and her newest pick is An American Marriageby Tayari Jones. Since June, Oprah fans have been waiting with bated breath for this announcement, and she guarantees you will not be disappointed by this read!
Image Via Workman Publishing
An American Marriage is Jones’ fourth novel, and it follows two newlyweds: Roy and Celestial. After Roy is charged with a crime that he did not commit, he is thrown into prison for twelve years and his young wife is left alone and afraid. Celestial begins forming a close relationship with Roy’s old friend and best man, Andre, in an effort to find comfort during her suddenly dark days. Jones suggests that the novel is very much a love triangle, but also reimagines and redefines what we might think of as a traditional American love story. Jones also hopes that the novel will showcase the horrifying repercussions of what prison can do to a family and the loved ones left behind.
Image Via USA Today
An American Marriage is published by Algonquin Books, and Tayari Jones remains a professor at Rutgers-Newark. In addition to fully endorsing Jones’ newest novel, Oprah intends to produce a film adaptation through her production company, Harpo Films. Oprah has nothing but praise and admiration for the novelist’s latest work, and completely insists that you will not be disappointed by the love triangle that ensues after a hiccup in the system sends an innocent man to prison.