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Jeffrey Coleman was a graduate student at Arizona State University in the early 1990s. For one of his classes, he wanted to write an essay about the poems and poets of the civil rights movement.

He went to the college’s main library, thinking that all he needed to do was find a good anthology on the subject to get started on his paper. He began searching the library’s database. He tried multiple search words. He tried different words in different combinations.

Nothing.

“I kept getting zero,” he said. There were no books that matched his search. “I really couldn’t believe it. I knew there was a lot of work out there.”

That’s when Coleman, now 46 and an associate professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, started collecting poems from the civil rights era himself. This year, Coleman’s 20-year-long project is being published by Duke University Press. “Words of Protest, Words of Freedom” is an anthology of poetry from the American civil rights movement and era.

He put together the book that he couldn’t find at the college library so many years ago.

“It has been a constant for quite some time,” he said of the decades of collecting and searching for materials.

After combing through other anthologies, obscure literary magazines, newspapers and private collections and talking to other scholars “who gave me clues,” Coleman ended up with a “multiracial, multicultural collection” of more than 150 poems written between 1955 and 1975 by about 100 poets. The collection includes “Nobel prize winners down to writers who published maybe one or two poems,” he said.

Coleman organized the anthology around significant events and people that marked the civil rights era the integration of schools in Little Rock, Ark., the murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and the race riots of the late 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, John and Bobby Kennedy, and others. Each section begins with an overview of that event or person.

While many of the poems were elegies to people who had given their life to the movement, “I didn’t want the book to be entirely about tragedies,” Coleman said. “In the end, the mood and the movement was triumphant.”

Coleman will read from his anthology, as well as some of his own poetry, on Feb. 16 at the college as part of the college’s annual VOICES Reading Series.

The business side of compiling the anthology was more difficult than locating the poems, he said.

“Finding the poems was time-consuming and fun, but obtaining permissions from some of the larger publishing houses consisted of long, drawn-out negotiations that often didn't end up in my favor,” Coleman said. “It's a complicated process that often involves several offices and contacts, some of which are housed abroad. However, when working directly with a writer or the family of a deceased writer, the permissions process was much more enjoyable. They felt honored to be included and were not as concerned with the financial side.”

The project was much more than an academic exercise or an effort to get a book published, he said. “It was a very moving and powerful experience.”

Lindsay Pack, a 2005 graduate of St. Mary’s College who now lives in Baltimore, was one of several students who assisted with the project; she worked with Coleman during a related independent study.

“While I was aware of the Black Arts movement that began in the 1960s, I hadn’t previously explored it to the degree I was able to during my independent study with Dr. Coleman,” Pack wrote in an email. “Spending hours in the library, paging through books of poetry from the Black Arts movement, I saw these poems as a powerful form of protest that stood out from the more traditional protests of the civil rights movement by challenging African Americans to stand apart and be proud of their culture. Many of these poets even ended up on government watch lists because of what they were writing that’s power.

“The poetry of the civil rights movement makes the events of the time vivid and unavoidable; they confront you in every way that they should,” she wrote.

Coleman said he was moved by the civil rights poetry he found. “You start thinking about how much that generation sacrificed ... the emotional toll and psychological toll. There were some very, very courageous people ... all for the sake of future generations.”

That sacrifice humbled Coleman “on a lot of levels,” he said.

“I don’t know how you repay that.”

He said that in some way, the anthology was his effort at repayment to the poets and the subjects of that era. “This is my way of thanking them,” he said.

Coleman lives in St. Leonard. He is married to Ynez Coleman and they have two children, Nadia, 9, and Javier, 7.

scraton@somdnews.com

If you go

Jeffrey Coleman, associate English professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, will read from his anthology, “Words of Protest, Words of Freedom,” a collection of poems inspired by the American civil rights era, on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 8:15 p.m. in Daugherty-Palmer Commons at the college. Refreshments will be served following the public reading, which is part of the college’s annual VOICES Reading Series.