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Churchill quoted radical poet Claude McKay

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By David Freeman

Originally published in Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-025

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!

As Jamaica celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence, The Churchill Centre receives inquiries seeking verification of the story that Winston Churchill at one time or another quoted all or part of the famous sonnet by Claude McKay "If We Must Die." There is no evidence to support this claim.

McKay (1880-1948) was born and raised in Jamaica. He emigrated to the United States in 1912 to attend college. He became active in radical politics and wrote "If We Must Die" in reaction to race riots that swept America during the 1919 "Red Scare." The poem was first published that same year in the July issue of The Liberator, a left-wing magazine edited in New York by Max Eastman.

In an article published in the September 2003 issue of Notes & Queries, Lee M. Jenkins traced the history of the claim that Churchill quoted McKay's poem during the Second World War. According to Jenkins, the story started after the war with such black writers as Melvin B. Tolson, Kamau Brathwhite and Arna Bontemps. Variously, Churchill is supposed to have cited the poem in speeches made in the House of Commons or to the United States Congress, or both. This urban legend focused on the supposed irony of a famous white leader quoting a black poet.

In fact, there is no evidence that Churchill cited the poem in any speech. No reference can be found in Hansard (Parliamentary Debates) or the Congressional Record. Nor could the quote be verified by the Churchill Archives Centre or The Churchill Centre. The author Gore Vidal opined that it is very unlikely Churchill, assuming he knew the poet's identity, would have quoted the lines before a Congress controlled largely by Southern racists.

Probably, the confusion stems from the fact that the poem "If We Must Die" certainly sounds like the sort of things Churchill did say during World War II. It is even possible that Churchill was familiar with the words, since in 1919 McKay left the U.S. for London, where he worked for Sylvia Pankhurst's radical newspaper, The Worker's Dreadnought, and Churchill was well known for reading papers across the political spectrum.

Still, in the absence of any documented evidence, the story must be regarded as a myth.