James Baldwin, whose passionate, intensely personal essays in the 1950’s and 60’s on racial discrimination in America made him an eloquent voice of the civil-rights movement. Mr. Baldwin published his three most important collections of essays -”Notes of a Native Son” (1955), ”Nobody Knows My Name” (1961) and ”The Fire Next Time” (1963) – during the years when the civil-rights movement was exploding across the American South.
Mr. Baldwin’s prose, with its apocalyptic tone – a legacy of his early exposure to religious fundamentalism – and its passionate sense of advocacy, seemed perfect for a period in which blacks in the South lived under continual threat of racial violence and in which civil-rights workers faced brutal beatings and even death.
In the preface to his 1964 play, ”Blues for Mister Charlie,” noting that the work had been inspired ”very distantly” by the 1955 murder of a black youth, Emmett Till, in Mississippi, Mr. Baldwin wrote:
”What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”
When he wrote about the movement, Baldwin aligned himself with the ideals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1963 he conducted a lecture tour of the South for CORE, traveling to locations like Durham and Greensboro, North Carolina and New Orleans, Louisiana.
By the Spring of 1963, Baldwin had become so much a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement that for its May 17 issue on the turmoil in Birmingham, Alabama, Time magazine put James Baldwin on the cover.
“There is not another writer,” said Time, “who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.”
Mr. Baldwin also made a prominent appearance at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. After a bomb exploded in a Birmingham church not long after the March, Baldwin called for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience in response to this “terrifying crisis.”
Baldwin was a close friend of the singer, pianist, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. With Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin helped awaken Simone to the civil rights movement. Later, Baldwin and Hansberry met with Robert F. Kennedy, along with Kenneth Clark and Lena Horne, in an attempt to persuade Kennedy of the importance of civil rights legislation.