About the Author

Katherine Mellen Charron is an Associate Professor of History at North Carolina State University. She is the author of the award-winning Freedom's Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark (UNC Press, 2009), and the co-editor of Recollections of My Slavery Days by William Henry Singleton (1999). Her teaching and research interests include African American, Women's, and Southern history.

Jim Crow Segregation: The Difficult and Anti-Democratic Work of White Supremacy

"If We Must Die" (1922)


Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay wrote this poem in response to the racial violence that erupted across the United States following World War I. Between April and October of 1919, approximately 250 black men and women died in 25 urban race riots and a racial pogrom in Elaine, AR. By December, white mobs had lynched 78 African Americans. Of those victims, 10 wore military uniforms and 11 were burned alive at the stake.

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.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!


McKay, Claude. "If We Must Die." 1922. Accessed March 21, 2011.