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Poetry and the Civil Rights Movement

The struggle for social justice remembered through poetry.
Black and white image of Dr. Martin Luther King leading marcher on the Selma to Montgomery march.

In 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States. More than 150 years later, however, the promise of liberty and justice for all citizens remains elusive. Jim Crow laws passed by state legislatures between the 1870s and the 1950s established a formal system of racial segregation in the South. Racist housing policies, job discrimination, abuse by law enforcement, and negative stereotypes in popular culture pervaded all regions of the United States.

Between the mid-1950s through the 1970s, citizens engaged in a massive protest movement to fight for the rights and freedoms of all Americans. 1968 was pivotal in the civil rights movement, marked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the widespread riots that followed, and the passage of a new Civil Rights Act. The poems collected here revisit the heroic struggles of civil rights activists 50 years later. Poets influenced by the civil rights movement––a group that includes Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and June Jordan––used their work to instill a sense of pride in one’s identity, to praise freedom fighters and honor fallen leaders, to chronicle acts of resistance, and to offer wisdom and strength to fellow activists.

The poems are grouped by the dates of the events they address, with each poem’s publication date in parentheses. We have included articles, audio and video resources, and links for additional resources related to this momentous period in American history. To suggest further additions, please contact us.

1954-1960

The Supreme Court declares segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Rosa Parks is arrested (1955), initiating the Montgomery bus boycott. Fourteen-year old Emmett Till is brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman (1955); the two men accused of his murder are acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury later that year. A group of high school students in Little Rock, Arkansas—“the Little Rock Nine”—enroll in Little Rock Central High School, prompting a mob of white protesters to harass, threaten, and throw stones at them as they attempt to enter the school (1957). The governor of Arkansas closes all public schools in Little Rock after winning reelection (1958). Little Rock’s public schools reopen as desegregated schools (1960). The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is founded (1960).

1961-1964

The Congress of Racial Equality stages Freedom Rides to protest racial segregation (1961). Civil rights activist Medgar Evers is assassinated (June 1963). Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington (August 1963). White supremacists bomb the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children (September 1963). President Kennedy is assassinated (November 1963). The Civil Rights Act is enacted (July 1964).

1965-1970

Malcolm X and Alabama activist Jimmy Lee Jackson are assassinated within days of each other (February 1965). Six hundred protesters march from Selma to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights (March 1965). President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (August). Leroi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) founds the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School in Harlem (1965), igniting the beginning of the Black Arts Movement. The Black Panther Party is founded (1966). The Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia decision strikes down prohibitions on interracial marriage (1967). Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated (April 1968), sparking days of riots in Washington, DC; Chicago; and Kansas City, among other cities. Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated while campaigning for president (June 1968). (Note: The following also includes poems that address civil rights events beyond the 1960s.)

Articles
Audio & Video