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The Impact of Langston Hughes Poetry on the Civil Rights Movement

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

By Tara Kurup

Langston Hughes was an African-American poet, born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1st, 1902. The move to Illinois established an interest in poetry. Pursuing his passion for writing, he later went to Columbia University while working as a laundryman, cook, and busboy. He published his first poetry book, The Weary Blues in 1924 and his first novel, Not Without Laughter, in 1930. Along with poetry, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, and plays.

Hughes depicted the beauty of his cultures as the music and language, alongside their injustices through his works of poetry and novels. His poetry was known to be addressed towards Black America. His language, themes, and ideas in his poetry made him arise as a leading force of African American representation throughout America.

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement occurred in the ’50s and ’60s. Due to the Jim Crow laws in the South, Black Americans were being segregated for basic human needs. They could not live in the same towns, go to the same schools, or even go to the same bathrooms as white citizens. Basic human rights were being stripped away from them, and many saw this and wanted change.

Many protests and movements were being organized to stop racial discrimination. Huge, powerful marches like the March to Washington had over 200,000 citizens in order to give everyone a fair opportunity to get a job. The Selma to Montgomery march was also significant, having a whopping 600+ people marching for the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights activist.

Along with protests, there were many civil rights activists such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man and was arrested, but this sparked outrage amongst many Americans and was determined to give her the justice she deserves. MLK and Malcolm X were also civil rights activists who gave multiple speeches about freedom and equality.

How Did Hughes Influence the Civil Rights Movement?

As said before, Hughes wrote poetry mainly directed towards Black Americans. His poem, “Let America Be America Again'', was written in 1935. Although the country is known to be the land of the free, Hughes portrayed that it does not feel free for Black Americans or any minority group in his poem. The 8th stanza says:

The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?

This shows that there was never a point in America’s history where it was ever free for all citizens. His poetry spread out to many during the civil rights movement, making him one of the most famous poets.

Hughes was so influential that activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr, used Hughes’ ideals in his own speeches and letters. King’s sermon “Shattered Dreams” has resembled Hughes’s imagery. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” by King also brought up ideology by Hughes. In King’s speech titled “The Birth Of a New Age,” the ending was rewritten, inspired by Hughes’ poem “I Dream a World.”

“A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free.”

This speech by MLK contributed to his most famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

Hughes was an incredibly influential and important poet who helped shape America into what it is today. Not only did Hughes change poetry, but he also changed the way citizens viewed others and opened their eyes to see what's really happening in the world. He was a dreamer, artist, and role model to other Black Americans. Take time to read some of his own poetry to get a better understanding of how hard life was for Black Americans at that time.

Written by writer Tara Kurup

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