Today, I would like to address another name that often does not recieve recognition that it quite possibly deserves. That name, the man is James Baldwin. Baldwin was a contemporary of both MLK and Malcolm X. He was a writer who wrote some incredibly powerful and moving essays. I will warn you that these essays are long and deep, so if you plan on reading any of them, give yourself some time to unpack everything inside.
While Malcolm and MLK are often considered two sides of the same coin, Baldwin fell somewhere more in the middle. While he was still considered revolutionary, at least as far as the social world he hoped to see change, his approach was the pen. Through his pen, he would call for action. He would note the social issues he saw, critiquing them, and challenging them.
And he has impacted future generations. Ta-Nehisi Coates notes that he took inspiration for his essay, Between the World and Me, from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. There have been numerous scholars who have recognized his impact and influence, there are university scholar programs named in his honor, and he has even graced a USPS stamp.
But Baldwin’s work did not stop at Black nor African-American rights. Baldwin was a gay man as well. He and Bayard Rustin were two of the only known gay men actively involved in the Civil Rights movement. To clarify, that is they were the only two prominent figures who were also known to be gay.
This would become a hurdle for Baldwin who would find himself uninvited from speaking opportunities as MLK and the Civil Rights movement he led looked to distance themselves from both Baldwin and Rustin.
Still, Baldwin became an activist well beyond the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. He preferred not to be called a Civil Rights Activist, nor did he consider himself a part of Malcolm X’s movement. Instead, Baldwin referred to the Civil Rights movement as both the “Latest Slave Rebellion” as well as “a very peculiar revolution because it has to…have its aims the establishment of a union, and a…radical shift in the American mores, the American way of life…not only as it applies to the Negro obviously, but as it applies to every citizen of the country.”
See, Baldwin was a master with his words, and he used them to great effect. Even as he found himself living beyond the United States, he was still an active member in improving the lives of others.
As such, he deserves our respect.