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Unpublished Photographs of Civil-Rights Icons Highlight James Baldwin’s Role as ‘Spiritual Historian’

3 minute read

It has been more than 50 years since the 1963 publication of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, a New Yorker essay that in its book form turned into a career-defining assessment of American life, but the author has recently been the subject of a spate of posthumous interest. As the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary and the thematic inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Baldwin has again and again proved his continued relevance over the last few years.

Now, a new Taschen edition of The Fire Next Time pairs the seminal text with photographs by Steve Schapiro, including some images that have never been published before.

Schapiro and Baldwin had a long history together. In 1963, Baldwin was the subject of a multi-page story in LIFE Magazine with photographs by Schapiro, who traveled from New York City to the American South with the author. As the resulting story, with text by Jane Howard, explained, the book’s release had changed Baldwin’s life but he was proving up to the task he then faced:

“I’ve been here 350 years but you’ve never seen me,” said the frail, gnomelike Negro of 38. James Baldwin spoke from a New Orleans church pulpit but he was talking to a lay audience, mostly white, and he was giving them hell. He spoke both as one Negro and as his race’s voice against the rigid attitudes of white men’s fears and judgments: “I represent sin, love, death, sex, hell, terror and other things too frightening for you to recognize.”

This was a new role for Baldwin, whose main occupation has been writing probing novels (Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country) and articulate, somewhat specialized essays on the Negro in America. For 10 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 bestselling book called The Fire Next Time. So intuitively does it dissect the nation’s explosive race problem that Baldwin found himself a celebrity overnight. He also, reluctantly but doggedly, found himself on a whistle-stop speaking tour.

That Baldwin took naturally to his role didn’t mean he was glad to take it on. His existence as a public figure got in the way of his life as a writer, and he found himself having to respond to people — well-meaning white liberals, in particular — who saw his celebrity as a reason to believe he had nothing to complain about anymore.

Book cover for James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time published by Taschen.

Schapiro’s photographs of the civil-rights movement are a reminder of just how much that perspective missed the point. Baldwin may have been personally insulated by wealth and fame and talent, but his people were still oppressed and his responsibility to express that oppression only grew as he moved toward his goal of being a great artist — not just, he reminded the magazine, a good one.

“An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian,” Baldwin told LIFE. “His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

James Baldwin by Steve Schapiro.
Previously Published. James Baldwin was born in Harlem Hospital on August 2, 1924, and grew up in the urban North. After Schapiro read his story in The New Yorker, he knew he had to photograph the author, and convinced LIFE magazine to run a major story on him. They started in Harlem before continuing on to the South.© 2017 Steve Schapiro
Martin Luther King Jr. by Steve Schapiro.
Never Published. "The first time I photographed Dr. King," says Steve Schapiro, "I was not aware that he was going to be one of the most important people of our time." In fact, Schapiro barely noticed him in the background when capturing this never-before- published image of Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s best friend and advisor in Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1963. © 2017 Steve Schapiro
Page from James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time with photograph by Steve Schapiro.
Page from James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time with photograph by Steve Schapiro.Courtesy of Taschen
Congressman John Lewis by Steve Schapiro.
Previously Published. United States Representative John Lewis, then chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in Clarksdale, May 1963. Congressman Lewis has written an original introduction to this edition of The Fire Next Time.© 2017 Steve Schapiro
James Baldwin by Steve Schapiro.
Never Published. James Baldwin joined the fight for equality in the South. Mostly, he offered a passionate voice for justice and a plea for a nation’s salvation. In Mississippi in 1963, he visited the NAACP’s Medgar Evers, who was slain later that June, following President Kennedy's landmark televised address on civil rights. This photo was recently discovered in the photographer's contact sheets.© 2017 Steve Schapiro
Page from James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time.
Page from James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time.Courtesy of Taschen
Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965 by Steve Schapiro.
Previously Published. Schapiro and other photographers followed the march for its five-day, fifty-four-mile route. “We walked, and sometimes we would sit in the back of a wagon,” Schapiro recalls. “At one point, it rained, and suddenly the whole march was wrapped in white plastic.” Selma-to-Montgomery March, 1965.© 2017 Steve Schapiro
Martin Luther King Jr. by Steve Schapiro.
Previously Published. Ralph Abernathy (rear) and Dr. King lead the way on the road to Montgomery. The American flag was a natural symbol for a movement that called on the nation to live up to its principles. 1965© 2017 Steve Schapiro

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com