Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
Fifty years ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, a devastated James Baldwin made a final attempt to reconcile the generational divide between the civil rights movement and Black Power.
On the afternoon of April 4, 1968, James Baldwin was relaxing by the pool with actor Billy Dee Williams in a rented house in Palm Springs. Columbia Pictures had put Baldwin up there after commissioning him to write a film adaptation of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965); Williams was Baldwin’s pick to play Malcolm. The men were listening to Aretha Franklin when the phone rang. Upon hearing the news that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated, Baldwin collapsed in Williams’s arms.
King’s murder made Baldwin feel like the last person capable of bridging the divide between his generation and younger activists. In a way he considered very un-American, Baldwin understood that generations depend upon each other.
Baldwin had known King since 1957, when the two had met in Atlanta. They had seen each other twice in the previous weeks. Both spoke at Carnegie Hall on February 23 in honor of W. E. B. Du Bois. For the event, Baldwin read aloud from his defense of the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, an essay that had recently also been published in the Manchester Guardian. And on March 16, along with Marlon Brando, Baldwin introduced King at a fundraiser at Anaheim’s Disneyland Hotel.
In Baldwin’s estimation, King was struggling to guide what remained of the Freedom Movement, contending with the growing appeal of younger militants such as Carmichael while traveling nonstop to support nonviolent action wherever it showed promise. The Freedom Movement had always been chaotic. But by 1968 it was a volatile tumble of organizations, personalities, and philosophies. All were entangled in an increasingly violent culture, one Baldwin had been warning the country about since the early 1960s, most notably in The Fire Next Time (1963). As an artist and as an activist himself, Baldwin was astraddle languages of black assertion that were splintering between generations. Introducing King in Anaheim, Baldwin tried to remind listeners that King and younger activists were working toward compatible goals. Radicals hadn’t appeared out of nowhere. Baldwin described the journey from 1955 to 1969 as a “terrible descent.” Despite present schisms, he stressed common, righteous origins:
Kids, including people like Stokely Carmichael, were being beaten with chains and thrown into jail . . . and poor Martin spent most of his time in and out of jail . . . trying to redeem . . . the principle of ‘love your neighbor,’ the principle of ‘if it happens to you it’s happening to me,’ the principle John Donne talked about, you know, when he said that ‘any man’s death diminishes me.’
On April 12, three days after King’s funeral, Baldwin wrote an overdue letter to a long-time friend, Turkish actor Engin Cezzar. Citing grief, exhaustion, and the perilous political weather of the era, Baldwin wrote that, with so many of his cohort murdered, including Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and now King, he felt overcome by both a despairing silence and an ethical burden to speak. King’s murder made Baldwin feel singled out, dangerously exposed, perhaps the last black public intellectual alive capable of bridging the ideological divides separating the leaders of his generation from those who had emerged since the summer of 1966.
Baldwin’s literary fame had been built on a complex and elusive sense of racial reconciliation, drawing together disparate but nonetheless proximate corners of the U.S. reading public. Those connections had been tough enough to forge in books and magazines. Reconcilation in history would be much harder than that. But, as he wrote in The Fire Next Time, “human history in general, and Negro history in particular,” testified “to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
While many thought of Baldwin as the spokesperson for cross-racial communion, after King’s assassination he grew increasing direct about the impossibility of saving the United States from itself.
The Fire Next Time had rocketed Baldwin into the role of public intellectual. Almost from the first, Baldwin employed his celebrity in increasingly politicized ways. Having gained the national spotlight, he gave lectures in support of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The same month that his portrait appeared on the cover of Time, May 1963, he made the documentary Take This Hammer, which brought attention to black poverty and white gentrification in San Francisco. A week later he led an acrimonious meeting with then–U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy about the dire, national implications of racism and violence in Birmingham. Outspoken in ways that kept him off the podium at the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Baldwin nonetheless led an accompanying march in Paris and appeared with Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston in a roundtable discussion broadcast live on TV in the United States the evening of the march.
While many continued to think of Baldwin as the spokesperson for a vision of ultimate cross-racial communion such as concluded The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s speeches and essays grew increasing direct about the impossibilities of saving the United States from itself. By the time of King’s murder, Baldwin had shifted his intellectual focus mainly away from black–white reconciliation to instead undertake a no-less-difficult project: facilitating a conversation connecting younger, more radical black leaders with those of his own generation.
• • •
In May 1966, Carmichael was elected to replace John Lewis as national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Though both men were nearly the same age and both had been involved in the nonviolent crusades of the early sixties, their political trajectories had diverged dramatically. Raised in rural Alabama, Lewis was a true believer in, and practitioner of, nonviolent resistance as modeled by King. Born in Trinidad and raised in Harlem, Carmichael infused King’s movement with more radical forms of political action. His leadership pushed SNCC in the direction of its eventual alliance, under the leadership of H. Rap Brown, with the Black Panthers.
Soon after Carmichael’s election, civil rights maverick James Meredith was shot during his one-man march across the state of Mississippi. Organizations such as SNCC, CORE, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference joined together to complete Meredith’s march. As the march grew in size, and succeeded in registering thousands of black voters at courthouses along the route, state officials cast off their strategy to tolerate the marchers. The impasse first appeared in Greenwood, Mississippi, when marchers were refused the right to camp on the grounds of Stone Street Negro School. Carmichael intervened and was arrested. He claimed it was the twenty-seventh time since 1961 that he had been jailed.
Baldwin cautioned young activists away from abstract racial theories, from adopting the most ‘barbaric of the European myths’—from ‘manipulating the color black, merely to become white.’
When Carmichael emerged from jail, he delivered a speech that, in the words of biographer Peniel Joseph, “transformed the aesthetics of the black freedom struggle and forever altered the course of the civil rights movement.” Integration and reconciliation were beside the point: what black people needed, according to Carmichael, was “Black Power.” Carmichael and his associate Willie Ricks led the primed crowd in a call and response chant: “What do you want?” “Black Power!” By the time King, having made a short trip to Chicago, returned to join the march, photos of Carmichael’s arrest had appeared on front pages of national and international newspapers. Within the week, Carmichael had made his first appearances on Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and other national TV news shows. Carmichael’s lean visage would become the face of the new era of Black Power, which, with its turn away from efforts to awaken the moral conscience of white America, represented a serious challenge to King’s vision of cross-racial amelioration.
At the time of Carmichael’s election, Baldwin was living in Istanbul, working on Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968). The novel, a mirror of the times and a meditation on Baldwin’s own role in them, tells the story of a famed, bisexual black actor’s erotic fascination with a character who advocates for racial revolution.
Hearing news of the shakeup in SNCC, Baldwin’s brother David wrote to Baldwin abroad. The new watchword, David said, was Black Power. And the reaction to it by established leaders King and Roy Wilkins (of the NAACP), David wrote, was to run the other way.
Baldwin had seen this shift coming. In his reply to David, he said that he felt duty-bound to do a U.S. lecture tour in which he would encourage tactics less self-destructive than those currently being taken. Given the hardening political course of national politics and increasing violence in the United States, Baldwin anticipated that the leaders of his generation would soon be viewed as irrelevant. Baldwin knew he was not an organizer, he was an artist, but he hoped to advise those who would play active political roles. He said that he would urge the younger generation into concrete acts and away from abstract racial theories, from adopting the most “barbaric of the European myths”—from, in effect, “manipulating the color black, merely to become white.”
In February 1968 Baldwin and Carmichael arrived in California almost simultaneously, though for very different reasons. Baldwin was there to write a film about Malcolm X, patron saint of the younger activists, for Columbia Pictures. Carmichael, on the other hand, came to California to present an image of a unified Black Power movement. At a ceremony in Oakland, the Black Panther’s Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, would name Carmichael the Black Panther’s honorary prime minister. Seeking to validate his role as translator of Malcolm’s life and keep the lines of communication open between the generations, Baldwin made a point of being seen with Carmichael about the town.
Meanwhile, clearly doing Baldwin no favors, at the top of its front page on February 21 (the third anniversary of Malcolm’s murder), Variety stressed that “Baldwin has been outspoken against some of the Negro racial extremists, hence his handling of the ‘Malcolm X’ script poses an obvious question.” Luckily, two days later, the Los Angeles Free Press republished Baldwin’s article on Carmichael, which had already appeared in the Manchester Guardian, and which he would read that same night with King at Carnegie Hall. The Washington Post and St. Petersburg Times reprinted it the following week. Acting as bridge and interpreter, Baldwin reconnected Carmichael to the mainstream of black history. He argued that, indeed, the salient novelty in Carmichael’s concept of “Black Power” was its openness, its honesty. Other than that, Carmichael had “simply dug it up again from where it’s been lying since the first slaves hit the gangplank.”
‘People are not what we say they are. People are much more complex than that. If you think that’s what people are, then you get Washington. Then you get that cretin in the White House.’
On February 27, having been in Los Angeles for less than two weeks, Baldwin wrote his brother about the strange scene of black radicals coming to see him at the Beverly Hills Hotel where Columbia Pictures had initially put him up. He told David that they’d come to ascertain if he was for real because he was in Los Angeles to tell the world about Brother Malcolm. Among those who came to Beverly Hills was Hakim Jamal, soon-to-be founder of the Malcolm X Foundation and cofounder of the radical black nationalist organization US. Jamal was there on assignment with the Free Press to do an interview with Baldwin that would run alongside his defense of Carmichael.
Jamal’s first question was about Baldwin’s years in France: “Why on earth would you go to a country that is predominantly white?” Answering at an angle to his interrogator’s intentions, Baldwin responded: “I never thought of it quite in that way before. . . . The people I saw in Paris, I saw from a great distance for a very long time.” Jamal continued, “Have you escaped from the ghetto in the United States?” Baldwin: “In a sense, as long as people are in the ghetto, I don’t want to escape from it. Where would I go?” Despite the ideological distance, the two established a kind of rhythm, with Jamal trying again and again to box Baldwin in, and Baldwin always escaping the trap. Or not.
Jamal: I asked that because we’re in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where if there’s five Black people in the whole hotel, it’s a miracle—the janitors are all white, the chambermaids are even all white. And you’re in what would be considered a bourgeois state right now.
Baldwin: I’m a very bourgeois type.
Throughout the conversation, Baldwin fielded accusatory questions on his toes but also made it clear that he wasn’t easy to intimidate.
Jamal: Are you a homosexual?
Baldwin: No, I’m bisexual. Whatever that means.
Jamal: Good. No, I know, because that’s what they say anyway.
Baldwin: I don’t give a shit what people say.
Turning to Malcolm X, Jamal asked, “Did you know him well?”
Baldwin: I don’t know if I knew him well; we loved each other. We were very good friends.
Jamal: I know that.
Baldwin: It’s difficult, because now he’s dead. If you had asked me when he was alive if I knew him well, I would have said yes. When a man is dead, you wonder how well you knew him, no matter how well you loved him. There was so much more in Malcolm than Malcolm knew how to tell. There was so much more in him than he ever lived to express.
Jamal asked if Baldwin thought that Malcolm X hated white people. Baldwin said no, he didn’t think so; Malcolm “understood something about this country and our dilemma here that carried him far past that.” Then, Baldwin swerved. In letters to his brother, he’d been rehearsing a response to being challenged, as he knew he would be, over choosing Elia Kazan, a “white man,” as the director of a film about Malcolm X. He told his brother that he intended to respond by saying, simply, that no one could prove that Kazan was white. In response to the idea of Malcolm hating white people, Baldwin veered into his thoughts about Kazan, whose novel The Arrangement (1967) he’d reviewed the previous spring in the New York Review of Books. Baldwin told Jamal:
You said in the beginning that our problem is white against black—but I think in fact our problem is much deeper than that. In the first place, I’m not sure any white man in this country is able to prove he’s white. That’s a myth. And Negro is a legal term. That’s another myth really. The problem in this country is that brothers are tearing each other to pieces and have been doing so for generations.
For Baldwin, the whole mythic racial nightmare was based upon “economic arrangements of the Western world [which] are obsolete.” People’s identities as Americans are built on fraudulent terms, terms founded upon criminal economic arrangements. Of the latter, Baldwin told Jamal, “Either the West will revise them or the West will perish.” This was especially acute for white folks gripped in “European hangovers” who fantasized that they had more in common with villagers in Scotland or Ireland than they did with black folks who had been their neighbors (and closer than that!) for generations. Economics and race were mutually reinforcing false witnesses. White Americans (and now, in radical response, black folks too) seemed determined to pretend that “race” was a naturally occurring phenomena, and Americans’ delusional sense of economics indicated that “mink coats grow and automobiles are an act of God.” No matter the myths, as for the cars at least, Baldwin reminded: “they’re all built out of stolen tin.” People around the world in places such as Johannesburg are not going to go down into mines, “dig up all that wealth, and give it away. That is simply not going to go on forever.”
A week before King was slain, Baldwin told his brother that he just didn’t care about the country like he once did. He saw the looming catastrophe and figured most Americans deserved it.
But in economics and likewise with the identities of human beings, pretending that such things were matters of nature and would, therefore, “go on forever” required performances worthy of Oscars. Baldwin said that all of this makes “John Wayne the ideal. He’s a straight-shooter. A simple, straight-forward guy. You can trust him. Only trouble is, he’s brainless.” Meanwhile, riffing on Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, Baldwin stressed that an “American male who is capable of having two warring thoughts at the same time is suspect.” This delusional mash up of economics, identity, and simple-mindedness was a recipe for exactly the national electoral politics of the era, as well as the radical responses to it.
Jamal was following along, kind of: “Yes, it’s true that most Americans live with contradictions.” Baldwin pushed the conversation further.
Yes, but they lie about them. It’s the loneliest country in the world because everybody is saying to his neighbor what he thinks his neighbor wants him to say. Then they have violent nervous breakdowns all of a sudden, and they murder their children or their wives and everyone wonders why. They’ve been carrying this thing around in them all along and suddenly it blows up. People are not what we say they are. People are much more complex than that. If you think that’s what people are, then you get Washington. Then you get that cretin in the White House. What is his virtue if he’s not straight-forward, hard-hitting, simple-minded, patriotic, our American boys and all that bull-shit?
Despite his intensity, Baldwin took pains to make sure that the conversation did not read as a generational battle—quite the opposite. In a way most of the radical leaders in the younger generation did not expect, Baldwin respected them and he feared for their dangerous predicament, one made all the more dangerous by what he regarded as his generation’s failures.
Four years ago. It seems like a thousand years ago. And all of us four years ago hoped—though we might have had other suspicions—that we could prevent what has come. But we couldn’t. We tried. We failed.
In a way he considered very un-American, Baldwin understood that generations depend upon each other. When Jamal pointed out a disagreement he perceived between Baldwin and Brown, Baldwin answered: “Well, Rap and I are very different people. I’m much older than Rap.” Reading now, we think we can see what’s coming: the elder deploys his wisdom. Instead, Baldwin continues, “and Rap may know a lot that I don’t know.”
What if Baldwin could have indicated to Jamal that militaristic titles and shotguns were not going to atone for the massacre of his generation of leaders? That beards and berets, new names and new holidays were not going to seize the day? That historical horrors were alive behind the lines, at work in intimate proximities and, yes, in contradictions, the existence of which Americans are warned away from admitting? In a way which Baldwin understood, it would have been impossible to make such counsel, and presumptuous for him to try. Of Carmichael Baldwin wrote:
I get his message. . . . a black man under thirty, is saying to me, a black man over forty, that he will not live the life I’ve lived, or be corralled into some of the awful choices that I have been forced to make. And he is perfectly right.
A week before King was slain in Memphis amid a strike by sanitation workers, Baldwin told his brother that he just didn’t care about the country like he once did. He examined the looming catastrophes and figured most Americans deserved it. The only trouble was that some didn’t. And that pretty much covers Baldwin’s vision circa 1968. He hoped to transfer a depth of concern and restraint, an incisive and tactical maturity, a force (he called it love) forged by his generation and ones preceding, to the next generation of black people and whomever else—not a mass movement—might be out there listening. King and his legions really had tried to inject some substance from that vision into the country as a whole; they’d been met with rejection, duplicity, and lethal violence. So be it, Baldwin thought, and he went ahead.
‘They have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long. If they think that things are more important than people, let them be destroyed by their things.’
Throughout the early seventies, Baldwin would continue to support Black Power activists such as Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, George and Jonathan Jackson, and Amiri Baraka. He’d also support the work of emerging writers such as Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Maya Angelou. He’d even entertain pleas from Eldridge Cleaver, even though he had called Baldwin an untrustworthy faggot in his book Soul on Ice (1968). Baldwin’s work would never again address itself in good faith to people who still insisted—in light of it all—that they were white. In spite of this, Baldwin’s writing over the next two decades—until his death in late 1987—would continue to develop its singularly nuanced vision of human capacity and possibility. U.S. political and literary ambition would drift elsewhere until, in recent years, another generation of activists in the Movement for Black Lives, and another generation (or two) of black artists—among them Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Barry Jenkins—would turn back to examine more closely what Baldwin had wrought, in complex and conflicted hopes up until 1968, and in politicized repudiation of despair thereafter.
• • •
By the end of 1968, Baldwin had decided that he couldn’t work with the agenda of the movie industry. He finished his script nonetheless and would publish it as One Day, When I Was Lost (1972). But by then Columbia Pictures had moved on, and so had Baldwin. Of the experience, he would later write in The Devil Finds Work (1976), “I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.” Either as a parting gesture or as a last-ditch effort to apply pressure, Baldwin announced the impasse in the New York Times on February 2, 1969. In his op-ed, Baldwin explained that he would only feel the film was a success if it depicted Malcolm’s “public discontent” and “daily danger” while also showing “the private dimensions of his disaster.” But, as Baldwin came to realize, there was a problem: “How, given the conditions of his life here, is he to distinguish between the two?” Baldwin concluded that “there may not be a distinction and that may be the moral of the tale.” But the Hollywood agenda, in full view in Sidney Poitier’s recent films, was to find “a way of involving, or incorporating, the black face into the national fantasy in such a way that the fantasy will be left unchanged and the social structure untouched.” Baldwin thought that everything about the United States needed to be changed. And, from his point of view, just about every citizen was desperate to be—and terrified of being—touched.
‘You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it.’
The trouble extended well beyond Hollywood. Baldwin’s generation had been decimated. As far as he could see, the younger generation—people such as Jamal—was headed into revolutionary chaos. Much of the rest of the country was looking for a way to forget it all. Aided by a sophistication in market research new to U.S. politics, Richard Nixon addressed this urge among a “silent center.” As Rick Perlstein notes in Nixonland, on May 16 then-candidate Nixon gave a national radio address where he described “millions of people in the middle of the U.S. political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly.” Aligning himself with arch-segregationist South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to usher into existence a new Republican Party whose ranks would include millions of formerly Democrat white southerners, Nixon described a “great many quiet Americans . . . committed to answers to social problems that preserve personal freedom.” In his editorial for the New York Times, Baldwin noted Nixon’s “silent center” in “the bulk of this country’s white population.” Baldwin described it from his perspective:
They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs. . . . [I]f they think that things are more important than people . . . [l]et them be destroyed by their things.
With King dead, Baldwin saw no leader who could any longer speak to what he considered the real needs of the people in the country. For all his brilliance and charisma, Carmichael was not that man. Moreover, Baldwin said that he had no reason to believe that Carmichael would survive another year. The cold and cowardly throng Baldwin was noting among Americans in 1968 would be exactly the population manipulated by Nixon in the name of the “silent majority.” Baldwin couldn’t identify a leader capable of describing the reality of the United States in terms that were accurate and that would be honorably engaged by the bulk of the population. In a July Esquire article, Baldwin’s vision of the political terrain in 1968 sadly reads, with a few slight alterations, like contemporary news fifty years later:
You’re going to need somebody who is willing, first of all, to break the stranglehold of what they call the two-party system. . . . What we need is someone who can coalesce the energies in this country, which are now both black and white, into another party which can respond to the needs of the people. The Democratic Party cannot do it. . . . I personally will never vote for a Republican as long as Nixon is in that party. You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it.
From Baldwin’s point of view at the time, the best of those who had tried were all dead.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.