Poems by Peter Coppelman

Civil Rights Summer
Civil Rights March


In 1967 I was a law student at Cornell Law School.
That summer for thirteen weeks I did Civil Rights work
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
I worked for a black attorney named Murphy Bell.
Murphy had a wife, two kids, and a good real
estate practice.

Murphy and I filed law suits to integrate the Baton Rouge jail
And stop the building of an airport runway extension
Through a black community, instead of a white graveyard.
When we drove around together, I lay flat on the backseat floor,
So nobody would see a white man driving with a black man.

After a rally focused on one of our lawsuits,
My picture appeared on the front page of the local paper
With two other civil rights leaders
Under the caption "Civil Rights Triumvirate."
Soon after I met a nice girl on a bus to New Orleans.
We made a date, but she cancelled two days later.
She said her father, a Klansman, saw my picture in the paper
And told her that one of these days the Klan was going to get me,
And he didn't want his daughter with me when they did.
In my apartment I slept with my door barricaded and
A loaded gun under my head. Not that I knew how to use it.

In July Murphy represented fifty civil rights activists
Who marched from Bogalusa to Baton Rouge
For nine days through the heart of Klan country.
The fifty marchers were guarded by 500 state troopers and
Seven hundred National Guardsmen.
Every night they returned to Bogalusa, and resumed the
March the next day, because there was no safe place
to stay along the way. At the end the marchers and the Klan
Held almost simultaneous rallies on the Capitol steps!
It was a miracle that no violence broke out.
The March was a lesser known but seminal event in
Civil Rights history.

The Klan burned crosses on Murphy's lawn.
I said to Murphy: "At the end of the summer
I am going to fly back to the safety of the North.
You have a good life here.
Why do you risk your life
Doing such dangerous work?"
He said: "Peter, just because I'm black
I take my life in my hands
Every time I walk down the street."
Murphy is the most courageous man I have ever met.
Inspired by him, I devoted my legal career
To public interest work, trying to help make the world,
A better, more just, more peaceful place.


In July of '67
The country was on edge,
Ready to explode,
With strife between the races,
Especially in the South.
Fifty intrepid souls,
With steadfast firm intent,
Decided to risk their lives,
To call attention to their plight,
In order to hold a march
From Bogalusa to Baton Rouge,
Through the very home
Of the dreaded Ku Klux Klan.
So perilous was the route
That these brave fifty souls
We're guarded in their march
By five hundred state police
And seven hundred National Guard.
At night they could not stay
Safely along the way,
And so they went back home,
To resume the march next day
From the place where they wound up.
For nine long days they marched,
The sun was blazing hot.
Danger lurked on every side.
The nation held its breath.
The last day of the march
They rallied on the steps
Of the Capital of the state.
The Klan was gathered near.
The Governor said his troops
Would shoot whoever made
The slightest violent move.
The miracle of that day
Was no violence broke out.
The march has since become
A seminal event
In the lore of the long fight
To establish civil rights.

[For more information see Bogalusa to Baton Rouge March]

All poems copyright © Peter Coppelman, all rights reserved.


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