*Jeffrey Lamar Coleman, Associate Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and the author of Spirits Distilled: Poems, has edited the definitive book about the mood and pulse of the American civil rights movement, Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era.
Poetry is an ideal artistic medium for expressing the fear, sorrow, and triumph of revolutionary times. Words of Protest, Words of Freedom is the first comprehensive collection of poems written during and in response to the American civil rights struggle of 1955-75. Featuring some of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century – including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, and Derek Walcott – alongside lesser-known poets, activists, and ordinary citizens, this anthology presents a varied and vibrant set of voices, highlighting the tremendous symbolic reach of the civil rights movement within and beyond the United States.
Some of the poems address crucial movement-related events – such as the integration of the Little Rock schools, the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, the emergence of the Black Panther party, and the race riots of the late 1960s – and key figures, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy. Other poems speak more broadly to the social and political climate of the times. Along with Coleman’s headnotes, the poems recall the heartbreaking and jubilant moments of a tumultuous era.
The book includes poems by Maya Angelou, W.H. Auden, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, Philip Levine, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Pauli Murray, Huey P. Newton, Adrienne Rich, Sonia Sanchez, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and many others. Altogether, more than 150 poets showcase the breadth of the genre of civil rights poetry.
As a student and product of those turbulent times during the 60s, this poem by Sonia Sanchez resonates with me particularly from Coleman’s book:
do not speak to me of martyrdom of men who die to be remembered on some parish day. i don’t believe in dying though i too shall die and violets like castanets will echo me.
yet this man this dreamer, thick-lipped with words will never speak again and in each winter when the cold air cracks with frost, i’ll breathe his breath and mourn my gun-filled nights. he was the sun that tagged the western sky and melted tiger-scholars while they searched for stripes. he said, “fuck you white man. we have been curled too long. Nothing is sacred now. not your white faces nor any land that separates until some voices squat with spasms.”
do not speak to me of living. life is obscene with crowds of white on black. death is my pulse. what might have been is not for him / or me but what could have been floods the womb until i drown.
— Sonia Sanchez, 1965
For those of us that grew up during the civil rights movement, this is a book that needs to be in your collection, a book that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore is the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He is the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” Mr. Moore can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.