By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s – and beyond – was a political movement which often used art to help change popular opinion. Poets associated with civil rights often used their poetry to commemorate those figureheads who campaigned, fought, and sometimes died to bring about social change; they also used their writing to alert white readers to the realities of life in the United States as an African American.
Below, we introduce ten of the best and most famous poems associated with the American civil rights movement of the second half of the twentieth century.
Dudley Randall, ‘Ballad of Birmingham’.
Of all the poems which deal with the horrors of racial violence in the US, perhaps ‘Ballad of Birmingham’, a 1965 poem by Dudley Randall, is the most powerful and moving. Randall (1914-2000) was an influential publisher – he published works by Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others – as well as a poet in his own right.
‘Ballad of Birmingham’ commemorates the 1963 bombing of a church at which African-American families worshipped in Birmingham, Alabama. The perpetrators were white supremacists. Randall focuses, however, on the victims, and specifically a young girl who is sent to church by her mother because she believes her daughter will be safe from violence there.
Audre Lorde, ‘Afterimages’.
This powerful poem, published in 1982, addresses some of the darkest moments in US history pertaining to race relations, including the killing of the 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till in 1955. Lorde (1934-92) was an influential Black female poet of the Civil Rights era, and her work, with its focus on the interrelationship between race and gender, prefigures later developments in intersectional feminism.
In this poem, Lorde does not shy away from the harrowing aspects of recent US history, combining the personal with the political and using visceral imagery to put across the horrors of it. And like her other work, ‘Afterimages’ is a poem written in the hope of reaching her readers and bringing to light a shared experience, especially among Black women.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot.
One of the most ambitious poems by the influential poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), Riot was specially commissioned in the wake of the Chicago protests which broke out following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
Divided into three parts, the poem is more experimental in its form than Brooks’ earlier work, as if the immediacy of the situation about which she was writing demanded a departure from more conventional forms.
One of the most notable aspects of Riot is Brooks’ decision to focus not only on the African Americans caught up in the energy of the riots, but also those white Americans both involved in, and observing, them: the characters include John Cabot, a white American of European descent, who finds himself at the centre of the storm of violence.
Margaret Walker, ‘For Malcolm X’.
Walker (1915-98) was an American writer and poet who, in this poem, honours the memory of Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965. However, the poem is not directly about Malcom X as an individual, instead focusing on his inspirational legacy, and the message he spread to those who followed him.
Amira Bakara, ‘A Poem for Black Hearts’.
The Civil Rights movement was a big part of the social and political landscape of 1960s America, and the poetry reflects that, as Randall’s poem above demonstrates. Bakara was another key voice of the decade, the founder of the Black Arts Movement, and the author of this poem about Malcolm X.
Nikki Giovanni, ‘Rosa Parks’.
Giovanni (b. 1943) is a well-known African-American poet and activist, who has written about one of the most significant Civil Rights activists, Rosa Parks, on several occasions (including writing a book for younger readers, Rosa).
Parks came to widespread attention in December 1955 when, during the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, she resisted racial segregation on a local bus and refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. Giovanni’s poem considers Parks’s role in the Civil Rights movement but also broadens the focus to consider the concerted movement which grew up around the bus boycott.
Rita Dove, ‘Rosa’.
Here’s another poem inspired by Rosa Parks. This one, by the American poet and essayist Rita Dove (born 1952), focuses on that decisive moment when Parks decided to take a stand and remain in her seat on that Montgomery bus. As Dove wonderfully puts it, ‘Doing nothing was the doing’: Parks sparked a movement by refusing to move, in an act of civil disobedience that would become a national talking-point.
Maya Angelou, ‘Caged Bird’.
This 1983 poem by the African-American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou (1928-2014) originally appeared in Angelou’s collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? The poem uses the image of a caged bird to explore issues of confinement, oppression, and restriction.
Angelou thus gives voice to a common theme of the American Civil Rights movement: the longing for freedom and equality. The free bird is able to live as a free agent, and has dominion over the sky that is his natural habitat. By contrast, the caged bird is bound and his wings are clipped to restrict his movements, so he cannot live the life he was born to live.
June Jordan, ‘In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.’
The assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis in 1968 sparked riots elsewhere in the US, as we’ve already seen. This 1971 poem by the American poet and activist June Jordan (1936-2002) is a heartfelt response to King’s death, and sees Jordan trying to merge ‘rhythm and political concept’ into ‘a vertical event’, as she later put it in her book Civil Wars.
Natasha Trethewey, ‘History Lesson’.
Let’s conclude with a more recent poem which views racial segregation as part of recent US history: very much ‘in living memory’, as the phrase has it. The poem sees Trethewey looking back on a photograph taken when she was four years old, in 1970. She remarks that the whole beach had only been opened up to African Americans two years before the photo was taken.