Dudley Randall’s Enduring Influence: Exploring His Words and Legacy

By Amber Ogden


“A poet is not a jukebox, so don’t tell me what to write” – Dudley Randall.


Tucked away are 12 boxes of the thinnest, most delicate paper full of history and language from a previous time. The words are lifelines that trace back to a transitional period of pain, friendships, and forever love that will linger on. Housed at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library are old ledgers, international travel itineraries from Africa and Europe, supply receipts, and love letters that belonged to the late Dudley Randall.


Born in Washington, DC, but raised on the west side of Detroit, Randall is the definition of Detroit Hustle. In 1965, he founded and independently funded the Broadside Press, today known as Broadside Lotus Press, with only $12 to his name. Detroit is a proud and innovative city, and Randall’s creation of Broadside Press can be viewed through the same lens; he saw a void of uplifting Black voices, including his own, and filled it.


Randall was able to share with people worldwide the great poetic giants of our time today, from “the Godmother of African American Poetry,” Naomi Long Madgett, Nikki Giovanni, Robert Hayden, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Audre Lorde, to name a few. There are countless others. Randall’s scope was more significant than he had imagined, as the original plan was for Broadside Press to publish his own poetry, specifically his poem, in response to the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, called “The Ballad of Birmingham.”

Ballad of Birmingham, written by Dudely Randall


(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,

And bathed rose petal sweet,

And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,

And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child

Was in the sacred place,

But that smile was the last smile

To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,

Her eyes grew wet and wild.

She raced through the streets of Birmingham

Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,

Then lifted out a shoe.

“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,

But, baby, where are you?”

Source: Cities Burning (Broadside Press, 1968)


Beginning to write and string words together at age 4, Randall published his first poem on the “Young Poets” page with the Detroit Free Press by age 13. Soon after that, he published works with the Detroit News as well. After graduating from high school at 16, he began working in the furnace unit for Ford Motor Company, Rouge Plant. From there, he transitioned to working with the United States Post Office. He also served in the US Army in 1941 during World War II. After returning home, Randall continued to write and publish his poetry. All while working, he enrolled at Wayne State University, obtaining his Bachelor’s in English and Master’s Degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan, where all his original works still reside.


Randall’s first book of poetry, Poem CountercPoem, which he co-authored with Margaret Danner, was published on the Broadside Press in 1966, setting the tone for Black voices to be heard. Moved by traumatic historical events, many of his poems were created in response to the racial moments that are seared in our American history and helped to elevate the Black Arts Movement. Randall’s influence was ahead of its time as this is the same book of poetry referenced in the hit award-winning show “This is Us.” Actor Sterling Brown’s character, Randall Pearson, was named after Dudley Randall because it was his birth father, William, played by the late Ron Cephas Jones’s favorite book of poems.


From 1965 through 1977, Randall ran Broadside solely on the dedication of Black poets and their commitments to the art form. He never once accepted loans, priding himself on “self-determination and independence” while continuing as a press editor. “Broadside Press began without capital, from the 12 dollars I took out of my paycheck to pay for the first Broadside, and has grown by hunches, intuitions, trial, and error,” Dudley Randall wrote in his book Broadside Memories: Poets I Have Known.


Randall eventually sold the Broadside Press, but it has retained its integrity and mission of a safe haven for Black voices to be amplified in Detroit. Over 400 poets have been published, and over 100 books, including his own works, have been published. Today, the Broadside Press, known as the Broadside Lotus Press, is still up and running in Detroit. Offering annual poetry awards in Naomi Long Madgett’s honor, poetry workshops, and an online bookstore.


Randall passed away on August 5, 2000, in Southfield, MI. However, his legacy is still alive in his words, activism, and Black Voices of so many poets of today, such as Melba Joyce Boyd, Jessica Care Moore, Joel ‘Fluent’ Greene, Michigan Poet Laureate Nadi Comer, and LaShaun Phoenix Kotaran; this list continues on and on and on.


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