CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "The American Political Tradition" by Richard Hofstadter (1948) focuses on major political leaders including: Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
"With one exception, Wendell Phillips, who introduces a contrast between the agitator and the practical politician, they where prominent major-party figures and holders of high office," historian Hofstadter wrote.
I read Hofstadter's book in 1960, after our 11th-grade history teacher in Pelham, N.Y., assigned it to us.
I was most intrigued by Phillips, the abolitionist who delivered the powerful eulogy at John Brown's funeral in December 1959 after he was executed for leading the legendary armed rebellion against slavery in Harpers Ferry in October.
In high school, I also read most of the novels written by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and James Baldwin.
William Shakespeare and William Blake are two of the most eloquent advocates of equal rights that I have ever read.
"Through tattered clothes small vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all," said King Lear.
"Plate sin with gold, And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks; Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it," captures Shakespeare's own outlook.
Blake, the English poet and artist, challenged self-righteous Christian leaders during the Industrial Revolution in "Did Those Feet in Ancient Time," a short poem beginning "Milton: A Poem," published in 1804.
"Was Jerusalem builded<co> here among these dark Satanic mills?" Blake asked. "I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land."
Today, Blake's poem is sung at churches, schools and sports events in Great Britain and throughout the world.
After I became a college undergraduate in 1962, two books helped spark my continuing interest in labor and anti-poverty movements.
"Labor's Untold Story" by Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais (1955) focused on rank-and-file struggles and strikes by workers across the country. (The "Autobiography of Mother Jones," published in 1925, is another iconic book, about the woman who did so much to help coal miners in the early 20th century.)
Michael Harrington's "The Other America: Poverty in the United States" (1963) sparked national interest in the welfare of poor and exploited Americans.
I also read books by W.E.B. Du Bois for the first time, including: "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903) and "Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880" (1935) -- which powerfully challenged racist histories of the post Civil War years.
It still amazes me that I never heard of Du Bois, one of the great intellectuals in American history, until I was a senior in college and my favorite professor James P. Shenton discussed his works.
Emile Zola's novel "Germinal" (1885) is the only book I ever read three times. It is a powerful portrayal of deadly conditions inside French coal mines.
In one scene, Bataille struggled to comfort his young friend Trompette. "It was like the tender pity of an aged philosopher anxious to help a young friend by instilling into him some of his own patient resignation," Zola wrote.
The moving scene -- about two horses living deep inside the mine -- captured the inhumane conditions of working underground.
Over the past 25 years, Nadine Gordimer and John Coetzee have been my two favorite novelists. Both wrote extensively about resistance to South African apartheid and colonialism. Both won Nobel Prizes.
"Burgher's Daughter," one of the most memorable of the 22 books I've read by Gordimer, tells the story of the daughter of Bram Fischer, a lawyer from a politically prominent Afrikaner family.
Fischer joined the African National Congress and later defended Nelson Mandela, playing a key role in the "Treason Trial," which ended in March 1961. Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists were acquitted.