Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, $22). The first volume of Branch's mammoth, brilliant biography of Martin Luther King Jr. does much, much more than tell us about the man. Branch manages to draw in every significant 1960s character and bit of zeitgeist, placing King in the full context of his times. Any book on a social movement needs to measure itself against Branch's achievement.
Bury the Chains by Adam Hochschild (Mariner, $16). The story of the original human-rights movement, the fight for slavery's abolition, is told here by an author who may be the master chronicler of this type of crusade. Particularly memorable is Hochschild's portrait of Thomas Clarkson, the late-18th-century activist who pioneered many grassroots methods that would be used in human-rights strugglesto come.
The Children by David Halberstam (Fawcett, $19). A group biography of the college students who kicked off the activism of the civil-rights movement by starting the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and instigating the Freedom Rides of 1961. Through sheer force of research, Halberstam does what the best books about social movements do, seamlessly zooming in on the personal and out to the historical.
One Palestine, Complete by Tom Segev (Picador, $24). This is the most compelling narrative account of the birth of the Israeli and Palestinian nationalist movements, still struggling today over the same land. Segev, who has written a number of great books about Israeli history, here puts the British Mandate period (1917–48) under the microscope.
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes (Penguin, $25). This is the definitive book about how a small group of radical Communist intellectuals managed to transform the Russian empire.
The Last Utopia by Samuel Moyn (Belknap/Harvard, $28). Moyn's revisionist history is an argument for looking at the concept of human rights as a fairly new phenomenon, dating to the 1970s. While discounting the idea's role in shaping society in earlier centuries, he provides a great primer on the evolution of a revolutionary idea.
— Gal Beckerman's first book, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone, is a history of the long struggle to save the Soviet Jewish community that was trapped behind the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II.