Martin Luther King Jr. has inspired millions of people throughout the world, including artists. BLACKSTEW has compiled five poems from the last 50 years to illustrate how his legacy lives on.
5 Poems By 5 Black Poets That Honor The King For Real
Black people have been fighting for basic human rights and freedom from the ills of—to use a term from bell hooks—imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for centuries. Born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is known as one of the most important figures of movements that centered the rights of Black folks in America.
A lesser known fact about Dr. King is that he was friends with and deeply influenced by the poetry of Langston Hughes. Similarly, Hughes wrote poetry about King’s work. Hughes’s influence on King was so profound that traces of his poetry have been identified in some of Dr. King’s most important speeches. Some poignant examples are King referring to himself as the “victim of deferred dreams” in “A Christmas Sermon for Peace,” and affirming “Life for none of us has been a crystal stair” at Montgomery, Alabama’s Holt Street Baptist Church in November 1956. Both derive from Hughes’s poems, “Harlem” and “Mother to Son.”
The relationship between art and politics is well-documented, but it’s meaningful to consider Dr. King’s relationship to Hughes as an embodiment of that natural manifestation.
On his birthday, here are five poems by Black poets commemorating Dr. King:
“Martin Luther King Jr” by Gwendolyn Brooks
Brooks offers a moving portrait of King the man, the leader and the legacy:
A man went forth with gifts.
He was a prose poem.
He was a tragic grace.
He was a warm music.
He tried to heal the vivid volcanoes.
His ashes are
reading the world.
His Dream still wishes to anoint
the barricades of faith and of control.
His word still burns the center of the sun
above the thousands and the
The word was Justice. It was spoken.
So it shall be spoken.
So it shall be done.
“Morning Song and Evening Walk” by Sonia Sanchez
Sanchez’s speaker reveres King and uses his memory as a guiding light and beacon of hope through rain and sun:
In our city of lost alphabets
where only our eyes strengthen the children
you spoke like Peter like John
you fisherman of tongues
untangling our wings
you inaugurated iron for our masks
exiled no one with your touch
and we felt the thunder in your hands.
“There Is A Street Named For Martin Luther King Jr. In Every City” by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
Hundreds of streets in the U.S. are rightfully named after Dr. King, and Willis-Abdurraqib uses this to reflect on mortality, King’s life, and his remaining significance to the world:
if you die on a street / named for a man who / they will say / could have saved you? / a man who would have carried you / on his back / to the promised land / where all of the black people are safe / from death / where no one black has a mouth / is what I mean to say / where no one can look up and ask where the sun went / while watching the black skin peel back from their hands / until their bodies become something more tolerable / that the sky does not hunger for / and isn’t this what every black mother wants? / a table full of children / who are still alive / who do not speak ill / who do not speak / who do not move / who will never be carried to a burial / by the bullet / are you less of a ghost if you die on a street / that was built by your ancestors / before it was named for your savior? /
“Martin Luther King Jr. Mourns Trayvon Martin” by Lauren K. Alleyne
Speaking to ancestral presence and pervasive white violence against Black people, Alleyne honors King by imagining what he’d say to Trayvon Martin upon meeting him in the afterlife:
For you, son,
I dreamed a childhood
unburdened by hate;
a boyhood of adventure—
skinned knees and hoops,
first loves and small rebellions;
I dreamed you whole
and growing into your own
manhood, writing its definitions
with your daily being.
I dreamed you alive, living.
For you, America’s African heir,
I dreamed a future
of open doors, of opportunity
of affirmation and action,
I dreamed Oprah and Obama
I dreamed Colin and Condoleezza
I dreamed doctors and dancers,
lawyers and linebackers, models,
musicians, mechanics, preachers
and professors and police, authors,
activists, astronauts, even,
all black as Jesus is.
I dreamed you dapper—
the black skin of you
polished to glow; your curls,
your kinks, your locs,
your bald, your wild,
your freshly barbered—
I dreamed you wearing whatever the hell you want
and not dying for it.
For you, brother,
I dreamed a world softened
by love, free from the fear
that makes too-early ancestors of our men;
turns our boys into targets,
headlines, and ghosts.
I had a dream
that my children will one day live
in a nation where they will not be judged
by the color of their skin
but by the content of their character.
Sweet song of my sorrow.
Sweet dream, deferred.
For you, gone one, I dreamed
justice—her scales tipped
away from your extinction,
her eyes and arms unbound
and open to you
“What dream, America?” by Aurielle Lucier
Lucier takes an intersectional approach to recognizing how Dr. King’s values still live on while also challenging America to be better and truly honor his legacy:
The truth buried does not rot, it roots.
The King buried does not die, he blooms.
This essay was originally published on Medium by BLACKSTEW.