6 Poems to Read on Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great orator, activist, and one of—if not the—most visible spokesperson and leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He envisioned a world in which people were not judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. In honor of his birthday, and of all that he’s done for our country, we’ve made a list of six poems in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And if you want to go deeper, you can listen to his entire “I Have a Dream” speech on NPR or read it here.
“In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” by June Jordan
One of the most highly-acclaimed Jamaican-American writers of her generation, Jordan’s poetry touches many fundamental struggles including civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom. “In Memoriam…” brings forth an intense, fast-paced retelling of the violence, anger, and outright monstrosities that King and others faced during the civil rights movement.
“One Today” by Richard Blanco
Poet, public speaker, teacher, and memoirist, Blanco served as the U.S. inaugural poet in 2013. He read the poem “One Today” for Barack Obama’s second inauguration. In the poem, Blanco paints a beautiful picture of America—one aware of the country’s history, diversity, pitfalls, and potential. With a child-like sense of wonder and wide-eyed optimism, “One Today,” fills readers and listeners with hope for the future.
“I, Too” by Langston Hughes
Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes pulls no punches in this powerful poem. In “I, Too,” the narrator describes himself as “the darker brother,” who must eat in the kitchen when company comes. Rather than feeling defeated, the narrator laughs. He plans to eat well and grow strong—to the point that no one will be brave enough to take away his seat at the table.
“Microwave Popcorn” by Harmony Holiday
Dancer, archivist, and poet, Harmony Holiday has published four poetry collections and founded Afrosonics—an archive of jazz and diaspora poetics. Holiday’s love for music and dance shows through in this rhythmic poem. The poet makes use of unpredictable line breaks, deliberate spacing, and well-placed syllables to address the so-called emancipated spectator—one who confuses voyeurism with empathy or understanding.
“Riot” by Gwendolyn Brooks
The first black author to win a Pulitzer Prize, Brooks is one of the most highly regarded poets of the 20th-century. With a strong commitment to racial identity and nearly unparalleled mastery of poetic techniques, Brooks built a body of work that displayed political consciousness and challenged its readers. Her poem “Riot” comes in three parts, and it opens with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” From here, Brooks unpacks the anger and rioting that took place in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination.
“Won’t You Celebrate with Me” by Lucille Clifton
A writer, educator, and former Poet Laureate of Maryland, Lucille Clifton celebrates African-American heritage and champions femininity through her work. Clifton takes a powerful and positive stance in this poem as she describes her resistance and resilience in the face of both racism and sexism. “…Come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me/ and has failed.” she writes.