Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

"If We Must Die" in Civil Rights-Era America

Essay Author: Alex Thompson

Although Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” was written in a very specific time for a very specific reason, it resonates throughout American history because of its universal message which preaches dignity in the face of inhumanity. From urging black men to fight back against white men looking to kill them during the race riots of 1919 to the Attica prison riots, “If We Must Die” has had a long history of inspiring those confronting injustice wherever it appears.

Civil rights activist Vernon Jordan writes in his memoir, Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir, of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. He feared that the death of Martin Luther King Jr. would divide the country further along racial lines and was inspired to find a poem he had read “about fearlessness in death… I talked about how we had to keep moving forward, how we couldn’t let this terrible event stop us from marching forward to our goal. The Leader had fallen, but we were still standing” (188). Jordan then read “If We Must Die” to those assembled to inspire and encourage them to continue fighting for civil rights. The poem serves as a reminder that all important goals require some sacrifice, and that there will always be somebody standing in the way of progress and fighting to stop it wherever it appears. Jordan used the poem to connect the struggle of black men in the early part of the century to those he and his fellow activists were facing in the middle of it. “If We Must Die” can be seen as a forebearer to the civil rights movement, as it inspired a generation to think of themselves not only as people and victims but as fighters in a battle for their own humanity.

In early September, 1971, the prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica New York rebelled against their guards because they were living in poor conditions and were constantly abused by those who were supposed to guard them. Over four days, the prisoners developed The Attica Liberation Faction Manifesto of Demands, which saw the inmates ask for basic human decency like adequate medical treatment and better food, in addition to calling out the “vile and vicious slave masters” who ran the prisons and the federal and local government. In addition to these demands, prisoners like Elliot L.D. Barkley gave interviews (or shouted out to) news teams covering the riot, calling for his fellow prisoners to be recognized as human beings. “We are Men! We are not beasts and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such” (Eyes on the Prize). If that sounds remarkably like the opening lines of “If We Must Die,” it is no coincidence. McKay’s poem appeared in the literature provided to the inmates and formed one of pillars of their rage. McKay calls for justice saying, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, / While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, / Making their mock at our accursed lot.” It is easy to see how the prisoners at Attica identified with McKay’s “we,” and their rhetoric during those four days was tinged with McKay’s defense of humanity in opposition to those who would deny it to them. Another version of the story told by Time Magazine has the poem found on a prisoner after the riot ends, initially attributed to the prisoner himself but later correctly attributed to McKay by poet Gwendolen Brooks (“The Nation: War at Attica: Was There No Other Way?”). In either version of the story, McKay’s words obviously have a great influence upon the prisoners at Attica.

McKay’s poem echoes throughout the United States’ history. It feels at once a definite point in time — a marker of the trials that black men faced in the late teens of the 20th century — and simultaneously a work around which any subjected group can rally. It is a call to arms which inspires in its audience a common cause of justice for the oppressed. It is both timely and timeless, a moment in the nation’s history and a spark reignited when it is needed most.

Works Cited

Eyes on the Prize. Dir. Inc Blackside. PBS Video, 1987. Film.

Jordan, Vernon E., and Annette Reed. Vernon Can Read!: A Memoir. New York: Public Affairs, 2001. Print.

“The Nation: War at Attica: Was There No Other Way?” Time Magazine 27 Sept. 1971. Print.

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