When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, what comes to mind? We think of the achievements and the victories, the marches and the protests, the struggles that eventually paid dividends. But the struggle for racial equality in this country wasn’t always in motion—there were bleak times, desperate times, where the injustices seemed insurmountable.
For decades before the movements of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, black activists worked and wrote and toiled, often when it seemed in vain. Countee Cullen was a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, and he wrote a poem that has striking resonance with many struggles for justice today. In his day, as in ours, the artistic community was a powerful engine for change in society. The entertainment industry plays a powerful role in shaping public perception, and celebrity and athlete idols are often as revered today as stone and wood idols were of old.
Countee Cullen wrote a poem about the trial of the Scottsboro boys—young black men who were falsely accused and convicted of the rape of a white woman, though the alleged victims admitted in court that the boys were innocent. Biased, racist juries returned guilty verdicts multiple times for the boys, a blatant example of the widespread discrimination African Americans faced in the era. And the artistic community was silent, to the disappointment of Cullen, who wrote his poem, “Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song.” His disappointment echoes today, where even the most liberal figures in the artistic community, or “Hollywood,” are silent about the plight of the Palestinians, and the injustices those people face as a matter of policy. Indeed, we saw many celebrities attacked this past summer for merely offering sympathy for the innocents killed.
The poem reads powerfully, especially relevant when the word “Scottsboro” is replaced by “Palestine.”
Scottsboro, Too, Is Worth Its Song
(A poem to American poets)
Now will the poets sing,
Their cries go thundering
Like blood and tears
Into the nation’s ears,
Like lightning dart
Into the nation’s heart.
Against disease and death and all things fell,
Their strophes rise and swell
The foe smug in his citadel.
Remembering their sharp and pretty
Tunes for Sacco and Vanzetti,
Here too’s a cause divinely spun
For those whose eyes are on the sun,
Here in epitome
Is all disgrace
And epic wrong.
Like wine to brace
The minstrel heart, and blare it into song.
Surely, I said,
Now will the poets sing.
But they have raised no cry.
I wonder why.
The Scottsboro boys were imprisoned, beaten and shot. The last of them went into hiding, until 1976 when he was pardoned by the State of Alabama. That injustice was recognized by a shamed world, after much work had been done to remedy the injustices of society. That struggle continues, as does the struggle for Palestine. The poets are silent yet on Palestine, but that is changing. So we do not give up, we do not give in, and we will never be silent. Because Palestine, too, is worth its song.