Poetry is an ideal artistic medium for expressing the fear, sorrow and triumph of revolutionary times. “Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era (Duke University, $24.95)” is the first comprehensive collection of poems written during and in response to the American civil rights struggle of 1955–75. Edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman, “Words” features some of the most celebrated writers of the twentieth century — including Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell 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. Coleman is an associate professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and is the author of “Spirits Distilled: Poems.”
“Searching for, and finding, pertinent poems from the movement years soon became a hobby I indulged in as often as possible,” explained Coleman. “This approach led to the discovery of a few poems initially and then to an American studies dissertation on the Civil Rights Movement poetry of Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael S. Harper and Alice Walker at the University of New Mexico in the late 1990s. Curiosity and excitement of discovery propelled me to keep searching, until I found hundreds of poems that could easily be classified as poems from and and about the movement, enough poems to begin to think about placing them in a single volume.”
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 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. Altogether, more than 150 poems by approximately 100 poets showcase the breadth of the genre of civil rights poetry.
“America’s ongoing civil rights movement reflects the triumphs and travails of struggles for citizenship, equality and social justice,” said Peniel E. Joseph, author of “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama.” “Jeffrey Lamar Coleman’s insightful and illuminating work re-directs our gaze toward the power of poetry in transforming the nation’s post-war civil rights landscape. An essential book for students and scholars of the civil rights struggle.”
“Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era” will be available in major bookstores and online during Black History Month in February 2012.