Broadside Press: Poetry to the People
Founded in 1965 by Dudley Randall, Broadside Press became a leading publisher of poetry of the Black Arts Movement.
I think the vigor and beauty of our Black poets should be better known and should have an outlet.
Dudley Randall, 1975
The Birth of Broadside Press
In 1965, the poet, librarian, and literary scholar Dudley Randall (1914–2000) founded Broadside Press in Detroit, Michigan. Randall started the press in order to register the copyright for two of his own poems: “The Ballad of Birmingham,” written in response to the 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and “Dressed All in Pink,” a poem about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After publishing those two poems as broadsides (single sheets), he obtained permission from four other poets—Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks—to republish their work as part of a series, Poems of the Negro Revolt. Randall soon expanded the operation, publishing collections of poetry and literary criticism along with more broadsides. By 1968, Broadside Press had become a major publishing platform for poets of the Black Arts Movement.
Between 1965 and 1975, Broadside Press published nearly 100 poetry broadsides. Priced at 50 cents and sold in bookstores, on college campuses, and on street corners, the broadsides exemplified Dudley Randall’s vision of making poetry accessible to the widest possible audience. Broadside Series poets included prominent literary figures as well as new and emerging writers. In addition to broadsides, the press produced chapbooks, children’s books, anthologies, literary criticism, posters, and audio recordings. Click here to browse all Broadside Press publications in the NMAAHC collection.
After 1977, Broadside Press went through several evolutions and changes in ownership. In 2015, it merged with Lotus Press, an independent literary publishing company founded by poet Naomi Long Madgett in 1972. Now known as Broadside Lotus Press, it continues to publish and promote poetry and other literary works by African American authors.
The first African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) was renowned for her literary genius and a beloved mentor to many young Black writers. She was also an early and strong supporter of Broadside Press. She gave Dudley Randall permission to republish her famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool,” as part of the first series of six broadsides produced in 1965–66, and later contributed several other poems to the Broadside Series. In 1969, to demonstrate her support for Black independent publishing, Brooks left mainstream publisher Harper and Row to sign with Broadside Press. In addition to authoring several books for Broadside Press, Brooks wrote introductions to poetry collections by other authors and edited a series of course books on poetry writing.
Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti)
The young poet Don L. Lee (b. 1942) was selling his self-published collection of poetry on the streets of Chicago’s South Side when he met Dudley Randall and asked him to publish his second book, Black Pride. Lee, who formally adopted the name Haki R. Madhubuti in 1974, became one of the most influential poets of the Black Arts Movement, admired for his fiery and innovative style. He published multiple books through Broadside Press, and his 1968 poem “Assassination” was the first previously unpublished work to be featured in the Broadside Series. He also is the founder of Third World Press Foundation, an independent press that has published literary and political works by African American authors since 1967.
Etheridge Knight (1933–1991) began writing poetry while incarcerated in Indiana State Prison. An army veteran who had developed a morphine addiction after being wounded in the Korean War, Knight had resorted to robbery to support his drug habit. But his gift for poetry, which he first shared with his fellow inmates, led him to seek a way to “extend my voice over the walls,” and he wrote to Dudley Randall about submitting a poem for publication. With supportive guidance from Randall and fellow Broadside Press poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Knight published his first book, Poems from Prison, in 1968. His writings earned international acclaim and helped bring about his release on parole. His second Broadside Press book, Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Unless the Black artist establishes a ‘Black aesthetic’ he will have no future at all. To accept the white aesthetic is to accept and validate a society that will not allow him to live.
Etheridge Knight, 1968
The Black Arts Movement
The founding of Broadside Press in 1965 played a crucial role in promoting literature of the Black Arts Movement. Guided by ideas of Black pride, unity, and empowerment, the movement celebrated and nurtured the development of distinctively African American themes and styles in literature, visual arts, theater, and music. As the Black Arts Movement took root and flourished in urban centers across the United States, Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press helped put Detroit on the map along with Chicago as major centers for the African American literary renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s. The graphic designs and illustrations featured in Broadside Press publications also demonstrated the connections between literary and visual artists of the Black Arts Movement.
Click here to browse objects in the NMAAHC collection related to the Black Arts Movement.
For an in-depth look at Black women writers during this era, see this NMAAHC Collection Story.