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Books for changing the world

Red Chicago: A Working-Class Power Reading List

Brandon Johnson’s victory in Chicago’s mayoral election reflects a long arc of radical organizing, political contestation, and working-class struggle in the city.

In celebration of a win for labor and a defeat for Chicago’s right-wing, monied interests, we’ve put together a reading list of some key books that explore history, politics, and possibilities in our beloved city, as well as titles especially relevant to Chicago organizers and militants looking toward the fights ahead.

“Class Struggle Unionism not only defines the urgency of our common struggle, it's a textbook on how to organize around our common demands right where we work in order to build a movement strong enough to realize an inclusive economy and thriving democracy. This is required reading for these times, and required consciousness for our labor movement at all times.” —Sara Nelson 

Class War, USA is a rich collection of stories about ordinary people who resisted oppression and exploitation against all odds.

Daring to Struggle, Daring to Win tells the fascinating true story of an individual radical organizer turned independent Chicago city council member, and her forty year struggle for justice in Chicago.

A trenchant history of community organizing and a must-read for the next generation of organizers seeking to learn from the successes, failures, and contradictions of the past, Occupation: Organizer pays special attention to the history of community organizing in Chicago.

A celebration of freedom work, a movement genealogy, a call to action, and a challenge to those who think of abolition and feminism as separate—even incompatible—political projects, Abolition. Feminism. Now. is informed by and explores the development of abolitionist politics in Chicago.

The Torture Machine takes the reader from the 1969 murders of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and Panther Mark Clark—and the historic, thirteen-years of litigation that followed—through the dogged pursuit of commander Jon Burge, the leader of a torture ring within the Chicago Police Department that used barbaric methods, including electric shock, to elicit false confessions from suspects.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, the most intense of the riots comprising the nation’s Red Summer, has shaped the last century but is not widely discussed. In 1919, award-winning poet Eve L. Ewing explores the story of this event—which lasted eight days and resulted in thirty-eight deaths and almost 500 injuries—through poems recounting the stories of everyday people trying to survive and thrive in the city. 

Lucy Parsons, who the Chicago police considered “more dangerous than a thousand rioters,” was an early American radical who defied all the conventions of her turbulent era as an outspoken woman of color, writer, and labor organizer. 

How did a city long dominated by a notorious Democratic Machine become a national battleground in the right-wing war against the public sector? In Mayor 1%, veteran journalist Kari Lydersen takes a close look at Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and his true agenda, providing indispensable background for current events in the city.

In 1947, James Hickman shot and killed the landlord he believed was responsible for a tragic fire that took the lives of four of his children on Chicago 's West Side. But a vibrant defense campaign, exposing the working poverty and racism that led to his crime, helped win Hickman 's freedom.

In the gripping first-person accounts of High Rise Stories, former residents of Chicago’s iconic public housing projects describe life in the now-demolished high-rises. These stories of community, displacement, and poverty in the wake of gentrification give voice to those who have long been ignored.

The Billboard is a play about a fictional Black women’s clinic in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on the South Side and its fight with a local gadfly running for City Council who puts up a provocative billboard: “Abortion is genocide. The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb,” spurring on the clinic to fight back with their own provocative sign: “Black women take care of their families by taking care of themselves. Abortion is self-care. #Trust Black Women.”

A sharp, funny, and engaging introduction to socialist ideas, movements, and solutions for a world in crisis.

“This brilliant book is the best analysis we have of the #BlackLivesMatter moment of the long struggle for freedom in America. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has emerged as the most sophisticated and courageous radical intellectual of her generation.” —Dr. Cornel West

Through a substantive engagement with the global Black radical tradition and a critical understanding of racial capitalism, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò identifies the process by which a radical concept can be stripped of its political substance and liberatory potential by becoming the victim of elite capture—deployed by political, social, and economic elites in the service of their own interests.

“This vital book is a spark, a balm, an agitation, a blessing, a celebration. Through narrative and research and conversation and reflection, Saving Our Own Lives tears down the myths perpetuated by the medical-industrial complex and prison-industrial complex, and shows us how communities have been building ways to survive and heal in spite of—and against—these systems.” Maya Schenwar

Speaking Out of Place asks us to reconceptualize both what we think “politics” is, and our relationship to it. Especially at this historical moment, when it is all too possible we will move from Trump’s fascistic regime to Biden’s anti-progressive centrism, we need ways to build off the tremendous growth we have seen in democratic socialism, and to gather strength and courage for the challenges, and opportunities that lie ahead.

Black Lives Matter at School succinctly generalizes lessons from successful challenges to institutional racism that have been won through the Black Lives Matter at School movement. This book will inspire many more educators and activists to join the Black Lives Matter at School movement at a moment when this antiracist work in our schools could not be more urgent and critical to education justice.

“Rooted in rigorous study, deep questioning and powerful and persuasive argument, Taylor’s latest, Remake the World, is further evidence that she is the people’s public intellectual.” —Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

This collection of reports and essays (the first collaboration between Truthout and Haymarket Books) explores police violence against black, brown, indigenous and other marginalized communities, miscarriages of justice, and failures of token accountability and reform measures. It also makes a compelling and provocative argument against calling the police.

What if social transformation and liberation isn’t about waiting for someone else to come along and save us? What if ordinary people have the power to collectively free ourselves? In this timely collection of essays and interviews, Mariame Kaba reflects on the deep work of abolition and transformative political struggle.

This rich history details the bitter, deep-rooted conflict between industrial behemoth International Harvester and the uniquely radical Farm Equipment Workers union. The Long Deep Grudge makes clear that class warfare has been, and remains, integral to the American experience, providing up-close-and-personal and long-view perspectives from both sides of the battle lines.

Offering an important account of left attempts to intervene in the American two-party electoral system, Kim Moody provides both a sobering historical corrective and an alternative orientation for the future, arguing that the socialist movement should turn its attention toward a politics of mass action, anti-racism, and independent, working-class organizing.

Organizing for Power is the only comprehensive analysis of labor and popular mobilizing in Boston today, the volume contributes to a growing body of academic and popular literature that examines urban America, racial and economic inequality, labor and immigration, and the right-wing assault on working people.