Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin were two of the most important writers, thinkers and rebels of the 1950s and ‘60s, and they are now rightly regarded as civil rights icons, the recipients of adulation they rarely received during their own lives.
Because history has a way of simplifying heroes’ journeys and smoothing over the rough edges, the full stories of civil rights leaders are rarely told. In reality, different leaders had different approaches and sometimes, core convictions, as was the case with King and Baldwin. There was mutual admiration between the two but there as also fundamental frictions, which was largely documented in Baldwin’s writings and interviews.
Baldwin was in awe when he first saw King deliver a sermon
Baldwin first met King in 1957, during the Atlanta stop of his tour of the Deep South. It was a year after the successful completion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public transportation, at least theoretically.
Baldwin saw King deliver a sermon and was awed by not only his oratory abilities but the conviction behind them. In King he saw a remarkable leader who was able to withstand white aggression and inspire belief in both his parishioners and the larger Black community. In 1960, Harper’s magazine asked Baldwin to write a profile of King, and before doing so, he wrote to him to request a meeting.
“The effect of your work, and I might almost indeed, say your presence, has spread far beyond the confines of Montgomery, as you must know,” Baldwin wrote in the letter. “It can be felt, for example, right here in Tallahassee. I am one of the millions, to be found all over the world but more especially here, in this sorely troubled country, who thank God for you.”
Baldwin’s article praised King’s work
The story, published in 1961, was complimentary of King’s rhetorical masterwork, his righteous core convictions and the impact his work had clearly made on millions of people. “The Negro church was playing the same role which it has always played in Negro life, but it had acquired a new power,” Baldwin wrote.
The danger of institutional violence and racism had troubled and exhausted Baldwin during his 1957 visit to the South, so much so that he collapsed for nearly a week after he returned. For the Harper’s story, Baldwin returned to the South and explained that skepticism in the larger Black community around King’s approach in the face of ongoing violence and racism — “that bigotry was a disease and that the greatest victim of this disease was not the bigot’s object, but the bigot himself,” as he once overheard King tell a parishioner — was beginning to lose purchase.
“He was more beleaguered than he had ever been before, and not only by his enemies in the white South,” Baldwin wrote in the Harper’s piece. “Three years earlier, I had not encountered very many people — I am speaking now of Negroes — who were really critical of him. But many more people seemed critical of him now, were bitter, disappointed, skeptical.”
He summed it thusly: “King has had an extraordinary effect in the Negro world … and is now in the center of an extremely complex crossfire.”
King eventually wrote back to Baldwin’s initial request after the article was published, telling Baldwin that he was pleased to see that Baldwin understood “the dilemma that I confront as a leader in the civil rights struggle.”
In the early 1960s, the divide between them grew
As Baldwin’s literary star grew, so did his prominence in both activist circles and the national media. He traveled to the South time to write stories and help with civil rights movement actions like a massive voter drive in Selma in 1963. Baldwin existed in some of the same circles as King, but he was also more sympathetic and sometimes aligned with the Black activists who advocated for a more direct and confrontational action.
If King and Malcolm X represented the two public poles of the civil rights movement, Baldwin was somewhere in the middle, with less patience and Christian love for bigots and KKK-aligned terrorists.
In 1963, Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a collection of essays and letters that underscored his frustration with white America’s extreme racism and rejected what he considered a Church-taught internalization of inherent white superiority. Baldwin had grown up in the church, as his father was a pastor, and spent his early adult years working within organized religion before growing weary of its lessons and passiveness.
He did recognize the differences between the northern church, where he’d grown up, and the southern church that King led, which he admired for its ability to soothe people while also forcing them to acknowledge head-on the realities of racism. Still, he’d begun learning more about the Nation of Islam, the Black Muslim organization that took on a much more confrontational and combative posture against the systemic racism in the United States.
As a political celebrity by this point, Baldwin met with Elijah Muhammad, the organization’s founder. He did not think that the Nation of Islam’s more hateful teachings and promises were the solution, but he understood why they were attractive to Black people in Northern cities especially, where the racism was virulent but more subtle.
Baldwin toured the South in 1963, giving lectures and speeches that espoused the importance of nonviolence but condemned in no uncertain terms the racism of white America in ways that did not exactly match King’s usual rhetoric.
The author was gay in a time that many civil rights leaders did not confer importance on LGBTQ liberation, at least to the point that they were comfortable with the public risk presented by having gay leaders in their ranks. Bayard Rustin, an early civil rights leader and gay man, wrote years later that associates of Dr. King — acting on their own accord — asked that he step away from the inner circles of the movement.
This discomfort was one of the reasons why neither Rustin nor Baldwin were asked to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. King was also overheard suggesting that Baldwin was too “inflammatory” to speak at the rally, which Malcolm X called “the Farce on Washington.”
Baldwin didn’t cry at King’s funeral because if he did he feared he ‘would not be able to stop’
Still, Baldwin and King’s paths crossed throughout the 1960s; Baldwin, for example, joined the five-day, 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in late March 1965, after the events of Bloody Sunday galvanized the movement and won President Lyndon Johnson’s support for the protestors. King was undoubtedly due great credit for the successes up to that point, which Baldwin would hardly deny him.
The assassination of Malcolm X that same year served as both a galvanizing moment and low point. Baldwin debated William F. Buckley in a historic television broadcast in 1965, but also spent time overseas, including in Turkey, where he visited and lived sporadically for a decade beginning in 1961.
Baldwin was in Los Angeles, writing a screenplay about the life of Malcolm X when he got the news that King had been assassinated. He’d seen King, then in the midst of his Poor People’s Campaign, earlier that year at Carnegie Hall in New York City. He bought a new suit for the occasion and wore it again to King’s funeral in Atlanta.
At the funeral, Baldwin tried to stay stoic. “I did not want to weep for Martin, tears seemed futile,” he later wrote. “I may also have been afraid, and I could not have been the only one, that if I began to weep I would not be able to stop.”
The assassination confirmed yet again Baldwin’s long-held beliefs about the coldness of so many white Americans. He suggested that so many of them saw the civil rights movement as a source of political capital, while others simply saw King’s death as a relief.
“I don’t think that the death of Martin Luther King means very much to any of those people in Washington,” he said later that year in an interview with Esquire. “I don’t think they understand what happened at all. People like Governor Wallace and Mister Maddox certainly don’t. I would doubt very much if Ronald Reagan does. And that is of course where the problem lies…”
It also ushered in a new era in the battle for civil rights, one that violated so much of what King believed in, even in his slightly more aggressive later days.
“To the Black people in this country it means that you have declared war,” Baldwin said. “You have declared war. That you do intend to slaughter us, that you intend to put us in concentration camps.”