September 22, 1963: James Baldwin addresses a crowd of approximately 7,000 at Foley Square in lower Manhattan during a rally held to mourn six Black children murdered in Birmingham the previous Sunday. Notable persons seated behind Baldwin at the podium include James Farmer, James Forman, Bayard Rustin, Norman Thomas, Reverend Thomas Kilgore Jr., and James Peck. Photograph by Morris Warman, used with permission.

The following is an excerpt from an essay that appeared in James Baldwin Review, Volume 8 (Fall, 2022).

From the early 1950s, Baldwin’s literary fame had been built on long, elaborate—at times equivocating—sentences which brilliantly emphasized the private, personal dimensions of human experience. Fame abruptly changed that phase of his life and work. Jane Howard put it this way in Life magazine’s May 24, 1963 issue: 

For ten years his novels sold well, his essays were accorded respectful criticism, and Baldwin swam around fairly anonymously in the intellectual fishbowls of New York and Paris … Then early this year a searing essay he wrote for the New Yorker was combined with a gentle letter to one of his nephews, and became a best-selling book called The Fire Next Time. So intuitively does it dissect the nation’s explosive race problem that Baldwin found himself a celebrity overnight.

Published in January 1963, The Fire Next Time marked a kind of crescendo of Baldwin’s early literary voice and its capacity to draw together disparate but nonetheless proximate corners of the American reading public. Those connections had been tough enough to forge in books and magazines. The chances of such a reconciliation in American experience were long if they existed at all. In this, as he’d long understood, and as he repeated in the often-quoted last paragraphs of The Fire Next Time, Baldwin envisioned the impossible necessity for Americans to recover from delusions of exceptionalism and come to terms with their place as part of “human history in general, and Negro history in particular.” The chances of that were, indeed, beyond long. At the time, it didn’t matter. In Baldwin’s understanding, those histories themselves testified “to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

Baldwin played his newly high-profile role of a politically engaged man of letters through much of 1963. He gave lectures in support of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. His “whistle-stop speaking tour” in the Deep South—New Orleans; Jackson, Mississippi; Durham, North Carolina—in January was covered by Life. In May 1963, with his portrait on the cover of Time magazine, and, yet again on tour for CORE, he made the documentary film Take This Hammer, focused on Black poverty and anger and white gentrification in San Francisco. A week later he led an acrimonious meeting with then–US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy about the dire, national implications of racism and of violence in Birmingham. Outspoken (and / or maybe just “out”) in ways that kept him off the podium of speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Baldwin supported the march, nonetheless, in Paris and in a roundtable discussion with Marlon Brando, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, and others broadcast live on TV in the US on the evening of the march, August 28, 1963.

On the third Sunday after the march, September 15, 1963, six Black children were killed in three separate incidents—one of which was the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—in Birmingham. That day marked the end of Baldwin’s brief career as a literary celebrity and the beginning of his radicalization, as such. Following the killing of Medgar Evers in Mississippi on June 12, the murder of those children changed the rhythm of Baldwin’s development as an artist and activist. It didn’t take long; part of him had been radical all along. But still the shift was clear. Less than one week after the killings in Birmingham, on September 18, Baldwin appeared with longtime pacifist activist and Deputy Director of the March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, in a press conference where they called for federal intervention in Alabama. The press conference was preparation for a “National Day of Mourning for the Children of Birmingham” to occur on September 22, the following Sunday. Baldwin would speak at a mass rally at the Federal Court in Manhattan on the 22nd.

Also that same day, as part of the National Day of Mourning, Baldwin appeared with famed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on a public television show titled Our Protestant Heritage and themed “The Meaning of the Birmingham Tragedy.” The activist-pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Harlem, Dr. Thomas Kilgore Jr., hosted the conversation wherein Niebuhr said that the Black church constituted the most important social force among American churches. Baldwin responded:

There’s a great paradox occurring in this country, what you say about the Negro church, for example, is I think entirely true, and Martin has used the Negro church as a kind of tool, not only to liberate Negroes but to liberate the entire country. And on the basis of the evidence, and maybe overstating it a little bit, but as far as one can tell the only people in the country at the moment who believe either in Christianity, or the country, are the most despised minority in it.

Gesturing to Kilgore on his right and Niebuhr on his left, and staring out beyond the camera as if searching for the words, Baldwin continued:

Negroes have done—with a really incredible, and agonized, restraint—more it seems to me in this decade to force Americans to begin to reassess themselves, than has been done since I was born. It’s ironical, I’m trying to say, that the people who were slaves here, the most beaten and despised people here, and for so long, should be at this moment, and I mean this, absolutely the only hope this country has. It doesn’t have any other. None of the descendants of Europe seem to be able to do, or have taken on themselves to do, what Negroes are now trying to do. And this is not a chauvinistic or racial argument.

Baldwin concluded his thought: “It probably has something to do with, um, with the nature of life itself, which forces,” and reaching for Niebuhr’s arm, “you at any extremity, any extreme, to discover what you really live by, whereas most Americans have been for so long, so safe and so sleepy, that they don’t any longer have any real sense of what they live by. I think they really think that it may be Coca-Cola.” 

If September 1963 had been the beginning, King’s assassination made Baldwin understand that his radicalization was complete. In his letter on April 12, 1968, after describing his perilous feeling of isolation as a target in the lethal spotlight, Baldwin wrote to Cezzar, “Whatever move I make is, in the eyes of the American government (and, more seriously, in fact) a political move.” On Malcolm X’s birthday—May 19—in 1968, Baldwin participated in a panel discussion with the actor-singer, journalist, and activist Maggie Hathaway; former Nation of Islam minister Ernie Smith; and the Black Panther’s Deputy Minister of Information for Southern California, Earl Anthony. Hakim Jamal moderated the event. Addressing himself to the occasion, Baldwin searched for a way to communicate his position as a radicalized artist and person:

I’m a writer. I’m not, um … I’m a writer who is part of the revolution, it’s true. I’m not. I have another obligation, I have another responsibility. To argue with you, for example. To argue with Malcolm, as I did. I had to take the position that I’m, um, I had to take the position that you produced me. I’m the poet that you produced. And I’m responsible for something which I may not always be able to name, which has to be there for the people who produced me when I’m gone and when this particular aspect when this particular battle is over … But I have to be aware that my major role is what I do by myself in the dark, for all of us I hope, and not what I do on stage or on television in the light. I’m trying to clarify something to me, to you, and to this very dim republic.

That radical pulse moved Baldwin in ways few at the time followed across the 1970s and into the 1980s, and in ways few understand now. Baldwin fused the texture of his life and career with conundrums of American history; he knew that understanding the one meant casting aside delusions about the other. That went both ways, which is not easily done. Initiated by the Birmingham murders and completed by King’s assassination, Baldwin felt that the “perpetual achievement of the impossible” in history had been left to him as a kind of personal responsibility. As he’d come to understand and explore through the 1970s and 1980s, Black personal responsibility had always been a complexly collective and mutual reality. Personal life was social life. Privacy didn’t turn upon ownership of the space; and it was as much about intimacy as it was about solitude. As Baldwin sensed powerfully by 1968 and would explore and elaborate upon for the rest of this life, to regard personal life as a privately owned, individual matter was to be frozen. A person’s real life was a social reality, not an autonomous one. People who lived lives focused primarily on securing owned solitudes—often by producing salable things—became “immobilized,” as Baldwin put it a little later, like “the citizens of Pompeii.”

Ed Pavlić lives in Athens, GA, and is the author of numerous books across and between genres.