Human rights are the fundamental rights and freedoms every person on earth is entitled to. Documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) outline what those rights are – like the right to life, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial – but human rights writing goes far beyond treaties and policy documents. In this article, we’ll explore 13 inspiring books covering topics like the history of human rights, environmental justice, human rights and the criminal justice system, and the lives of the world’s most famous activists.
#1. Inventing Human Rights: A History
#2. Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media is Changing Social Justice and Power
#3. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
#4. Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto
#5. The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector
#6. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock
#7. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Action for the Twenty-First Century
#8. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
#9. Burn it Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution
#10. Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada
#11. City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong
#12. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
#13. I Am Malala
For those interested in where human rights came from and how they’ve developed, this book is a good choice. It covers human rights from its roots in the Enlightenment, examines the cultural and intellectual history of human rights, and looks at how the portrayal of human relationships and individuality in art and novels spread ideas about human rights.
Lynn Hunt is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her areas of expertise include French and European history, the French Revolution, gender history, and cultural history. She’s written other books such as Writing History in the Global Era and History: Why It Matters.
#2. Memes To Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media is Changing Social Justice and Power (2019)
An Xiao Mina
Memes are hugely influential, but while many people think of them as fun symbols of internet culture, they’ve impacted social justice and human rights movements. In this book, digital media scholar An Xiao Mina examines how memes create, amplify, and reinforce the politics of today. Where there’s censorship (like in China), memes can protect activists from discovery. Memes can also become powerful weapons for misinformation and propaganda when in the hands of governments and hate groups. Both phenomena warrant a closer look.
An Xiao Mina is an American artist, digital media scholar, and technologist. Her writing has appeared in places like the Atlantic, Wired, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She was also a contributing editor for Ai Weiwei: Spatial Matters.
Lawyer Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama in 1989. The legal practice focused on defending the most vulnerable people in the criminal justice system. One of Stevenson’s first cases, the case of Walter McMillian, is described in Just Mercy. As Stevenson unravels McMillian’s case and fights for justice, he finds himself transformed. Just Mercy won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction and an NAACP Image Award.
Bryan Stevenson has served as the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama since its founding. He’s also a professor of law. For decades, Stevenson has won relief for dozens of prisoners on death row and argued before the Supreme Court five times. His work focuses on bias in the criminal justice system, advocacy for the poor, and community-based reform litigation.
In this book, Tricia Hersey (known as The Nap Bishop) exposes the damaging influence of capitalism and grind culture. In our world today, productivity is idolized as a human’s ultimate purpose, but bodies and minds suffer. Hershey promotes rest, naps, and daydreaming, arguing that they’re the foundation for justice, liberation, and healing in the world. In a world where a person’s worth is measured by how much they produce, rest becomes resistance.
Tricia Hersey is an artist, theologian, community organizer, and founder of the Nap Ministry. She created the Rest is Resistance and Rest as Reparations frameworks. Her research focuses on Black liberation theology, somatics, womanism, and cultural trauma.
Stress and burnout are entrenched in the aid sector. This book explores the unrealistic and damaging pressure aid workers face, why burnout is so common but also unacknowledged, and how staff and managers can develop healthier, more caring work environments. Houdley builds her book on original academic research and interviews to argue for a feminist, anti-racist, and decolonial agenda within the aid sector.
Dr. Gemma Houdley is an independent researcher, facilitator, and advisor on staff care and cultural change in the aid sector. She’s worked on programs for international NGOs like Amnesty International, as well as civil society groups. She’s trained in somatic and healing modalities, which she uses to design support programs.
#6. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock (2020)
In this book, Indigenous researcher and activist Gilio-Whitaker uses a lens of “Indigenized environmental justice” to examine the long history of Indigenous resistance against corporate and government incursion on Native land. Standing Rock brought attention to activists in 2016, but there’s a long pattern of tension between Native peoples and the mainstream environmental movement. Gilio-Whitaker calls on environmentalists to study Indigenous history and learn from a centuries-long fight.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a journalist, lecturer, and the policy director and senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. Her work focuses on decolonization and environmental justice.
Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige
Activist Grace Lee Boggs spent seven decades participating in every major social movement in the 20th century, including the civil rights movement, women’s rights, labor rights, and more. In this book, she draws on that experience to examine today’s political, economic, and environmental crises. Hope and creativity are vital, she argues. The next American Revolution will center on creating new forms of work, politics, and human relationships.
Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) was a pioneering activist, writer, and speaker. Previous books include Living for Change: An Autobiography. Scott Kurashige is a professor and writer. At the time of this article’s writing, he was the Chair of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University.
Now a classic, this book argues that America has not moved as far along on racial progress as it likes to think. The end of slavery and Jim Crow did not end racism; America simply redesigned it through mass incarceration. The War on Drugs targeted Black men and devastated communities of color, while the US criminal system has become a weapon for racial control. While it claims to be “colorblind,” this system has allowed America to sustain its racial hierarchy.
Michelle Alexander is an award-winning civil rights lawyer, legal scholar, and advocate. She is a former Ford Foundation Senior Fellow, Soros Justice Fellow, and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.
What is a manifesto? These statements describe a group or individual’s goals and motives. Throughout history, manifestos have been hugely influential in defining movements and uniting allies. This book collects two centuries’ worth of feminist manifestos, which author Fahs argues have always been central to feminism.
Breanne Fahs is a Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University and the Founder and Director of the Feminist Research on Gender and Sexuality Group. She’s been published in feminist, social science, and humanities journals. She’s also the author of five books.
Editors: Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware
This anthology addresses the most pressing issues facing the Black community in Canada. While the Black Lives Matter movement began in the United States, it quickly spread. In this book, Black activists in Canada write about activism and organizing, Black-Indigenious alliances, and the most persistent myths about Canada and its racial justice progress.
Rodney Diverlus is an artist, curator, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. Sandy Hudson is the founder of the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada and founding board member of the Black Legal Action Centre. Syrus Marcus Ware is a core member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, a Vanier Scholar, and an award-winning educator and artist.
In the summer of 2019, anti-government protests erupted in Hong Kong. People risked street fights with police, tear gas, and other violence. This movement, mostly composed of young people using unique methods, continued a legacy of dissent in Hong Kong. Author Dapiran, who is a longtime resident of Hong Kong, details this history, the cultural aspects of the movement, and what the protests could mean for the future.
Antony Dapiran is an Australian lawyer and writer based in Hong Kong. He’s considered a leading Western commentator on Hong Kong protest movements. His work has appeared in publications like The Guardian, The Atlantic, CNN, and Foreign Policy.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The most essential writings and speeches from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are collected in a single volume. The book contains speeches, writings, interviews, and autobiographical reflections on topics such as nonviolence, social policy, Black nationalism, the ethics of love and hope, and much more.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) was a Baptist minister and social activist who led the Civil Rights Movement until his assassination in 1968. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
#13. I Am Malala (2015)
Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb
As a child, Malala always spoke out about the right to education, which was threatened in Pakistan, her country. In October 2012, she was riding the bus home from school when the Taliban came on board. They shot Malala in the head, but she survived the assassination attempt to become one of the world’s most recognizable human rights activists. At 17, she became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. This book tells her story of resistance and peaceful protest.
Malala Yousafzai is an activist, educational campaigner, and author. She’s received many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and campaigns for universal access to education through the Malala Fund. Christina Lamb is a journalist and award-winning foreign correspondent who has reported on Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1987. She works for the Sunday Times.
Did you find this article useful? Sign up to our newsletter for paid human rights internships, online courses, master’s degrees, scholarships and other human rights opportunities.