This site Civil Rights Movement Veterans offers a generous selection of poems by motly African American forerunners and veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, especially by Freedom Riders.
Here are two online from Gregory Orr:
Democratic National Convention
Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1964
They bob above us all afternoon —
three giant charcoal portraits
of Goodman, Schwerner. and Chaney.
civil rights martyrs whose tortured
bodies have just been found
in the red clay wall
of a dam in rural Mississippi.
Staring up at their flat, larger-
than-life faces, I envy the way
they gaze at the gray ocean
and the gray buildings
with the calm indifference
of those whose agonies are over .
Myself, I'm a frightened teenager
at my fIrst demonstration.
carrying a placard that demands
the seating of a mixed delegation
from a Southern state.
prepared me for the crowd's hostility.
the names we're called.
Still, we chant the slogan reason
proposed: "One man. one vote."
And still it holds — the small shape
we make on the dilapidated boardwalk —
reminding me now of the magic circles
medieval conjurers drew
to protect themselves from demons
their spells had summoned up.
Copyright © Gregory Orr, 1964, all rights reserverd.
Hayneville, Alabama, 1965
Even as the last bars clang
shut and I start to rub the purple ache
clubs left on shoulders, ribs,
and shins, my mind is fashioning
an invisible ladder.
lt's rungs an lifts of escape.
They've taken the SNCC pamphlets
but let me keep a book
of Keats — poems reminiscent
of my sad, adolescent affair
with the coffln-maker's daughter,
which taught me many things,
And when, at dusk,
the trusty held for car theft brings
my tray of grits and fatback,
it won't matter so much that,
groaning and puking,
I'll be sick for hours.
Imagination is good wood; by midnight
I'll be high as that mockingbird
in the magnolia across the moonlit road.
Copyright © Gregory Orr, 1965, all rights reserved.
I was disappointed but not surprised that the American Academy of Poets made no mention on their front page of either African American poets or the legacy of Dr. King who spoke with the lyricism of a poet.
One of the great contemporary poems about the civil rights movement is Marilyn Nelson's crown of sonnets for Emmett Till, "A Wreath for Emmett Till." To hear her read it on NPR, click here.
On the other hand, the American folk movement responded with lyrics today that are still sung and listened to. Here is Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963--the year of Dr. King's great march on Washington.
Here is Nikki Giovanni's tribute, "In the Spirit of Martin" for Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968.
You Tube has many great short videos relating to African American artists. Here is Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," the greatest anti-racism song ever written.
"Strange Fruit" began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan (the names of his two children who died in infancy). Meeropol wrote "Strange Fruit" to express his horror at lynchings after seeing Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set Strange Fruit to music himself. The song gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.
By Lewis Allan
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
photo that inspired Lewis Allan to write "Strange Fruit"
In Memorium Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)