'Poetic Tributes' for King returns after 25 years


It is a slim book, bound in the rich crimson fabric of an Indian sari and published in India 25 years ago in homage to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

A limited number of copies of Drum Major for a Dream: Poetic Tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Ira G. Zepp Jr. and Melvin D. Palmer, were printed. Today, those copies aren't easy to find.

But the words in the book - written by professional poets such as Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks as well as students and other amateur poets - resonate.

Tomorrow night, a handful of people from the community and from Western Maryland College will read from the book in recognition of Black History Month.

"What is timely is also very timeless," Zepp, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Western Maryland College, said of the collection of 40 poems written in response to King's death in April 1968. "What spurred that rage and that anger and frustration and that hope and that dream is going to be with humanity forever."

Virginia Harrison of the Carroll County Human Relations Commission, the group that is co-sponsoring the reading, said the event is an opportunity to recognize the work of two local professors while celebrating King's legacy.

"This is a great opportunity to bring this [book] into the foreground," said Harrison. "I thought we could have somebody read these poems and have some discussion. It's a wonderful little book."

The poetry is filled with surprise and rage, shock and hurt, dreams and longing. Some of the poets try to console themselves over the loss of King.

Others, such as Carl Wendell Hines Jr., provide a reality check of sorts for the people King left behind.

"Now that he is safely dead, let us praise him/build monuments to his glory, sing hosannas to his name," Hines wrote. "Dead men make such convenient heroes."

Zepp began collecting poems about King while he was researching his dissertation on the civil rights leader in the late 1960s. He had collected about 20 poems from magazines, newspapers and books when he learned in 1975 that a friend at the college, English Professor Melvin Palmer, had gathered poems about King, including one of his own.

They decided to publish a book.

"People have always been moved to poetry in their most profound moments," said Palmer, also a professor emeritus.

He thought the coincidence was astonishing. "Two good friends at the same small school were doing the same thing and didn't know about it," he said.

The book, published by Writers' Workshop of Calcutta, India, is out of print. A second press run is expected to be completed soon.

Proceeds from book sales will benefit the county human relations commission.

"Poetic Tributes to Dr. King," sponsored by the county human relations commission and Carroll Citizens for Racial Equality, will be held at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the large meeting room at Carroll County Public Library's Westminster branch. The event is free.

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