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James Baldwin and the Ugly Moral Problem in America’s Heart

6 minute read

In August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Over 250,000 people were in attendance and even more watched it on their television sets. Television had transformed the country since its invention in 1946. It quickly changed how Americans experienced family life, how they consumed goods, and how they participated as citizens in the political life of the country.

By the time of the March on Washington, 91% of Americans sat in front of the television for their nightly news. Millions throughout the country and around the globe watched as thousands, black and white, gathered to declare their support for jobs and freedom and, more concretely, to pressure Congress to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights bill.

In the days before the March, Washington, D.C., became a ghost town. The city was prepared not so much for political theater, but for a race riot. Liquor stores shuttered their doors. Washington Hospital canceled non-emergency surgeries. The D.C. police stood at the ready with an additional 1,000 troops and thirty helicopters. President Kennedy was prepared to deploy 4,000 more troops from the suburbs, backed by 15,000 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne based in North Carolina, at the first sign of disturbance. It was as if the city was preparing for an invasion. White fear of racial violence was palpable.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. People reveled in the spirit of the day. Speeches were delivered. Bob Dylan debuted his haunting tribute to Medgar Evers, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” And Dr. King famously dreamed of a nation finally rid of racism “where little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers.” Only four people were arrested. All of them were white.

The March on Washington was a high moment in a difficult year. And James Baldwin was there. He had organized support for the March in Paris and, along with other artists, delivered a powerful statement to the American embassy in support of the demonstration. He eventually made his way back to the States for the event itself, though he still had doubts about its value.

For Baldwin and many others, the proposed March on Washington lived somewhat in the shadow of the recent violence of Birmingham. On April 3, 1963, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a desegregation campaign in the notoriously racist and violent city. Before the Birmingham protests, only 4% of Americans believed civil rights was the country’s most pressing issue. After Birmingham, 52% of the country came to understand race as the most important issue. It was here that King wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and it was here that the iconic images of Sheriff Bull Connor and his dogs and firehoses shocked the nation and the world who witnessed it all on their television sets.

The violence of Birmingham left many jaded. Baldwin said, after a meeting with Robert Kennedy about what was happening in Birmingham, “we could petition and petition and march and march and raise money and give money until we wore ourselves out and the stars began to moan: none of this endeavor would or could reach the core of the matter, it would change nobody’s fate.

This was the sensibility Baldwin brought to the March on Washington. After the day’s events and King’s historic speech, in a televised discussion with several Hollywood stars who also attended the march, Baldwin voiced what he took to be the central challenge facing the nation.

“[A]t the risk of sounding mystical, the first step probably has to be somewhere in the American conscience. The American white republic has to ask itself why it was necessary for them to invent ‘the nigger.’ I am not a nigger. I have never called myself one. But one comes into the world and the world decides you are this for its own reasons. And it’s very important for the American, in terms of the future, in terms of its health, in terms of the transformation we are all seeking, that he face this question — that he needed the nigger for something.”

The March on Washington moved Baldwin. As he wrote in No Name in the Street, “That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony.”

Funny. Even as he imagined what was possible in the afterglow of the March, he knew there were difficult days ahead. Just two weeks after the march, on September 15, white folk answered back with unimaginable barbarity. White Klansmen blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and leaving black people with a question that Toni Morrison would put in the mouth of one of her most memorable characters, “What are these people? You tell me, Jesus. What are they?

Baldwin knew that something much more than politics, much more than the political theater of a march, would be needed to solve the ugly moral problem that sits at the heart of this Republic. He urged the nation to confront that ugliness head on, but the country has consistently refused to do so. And here we are 54 years later celebrating the significance of the March on Washington and invoking Dr. King’s dream in the full and frightening light of white supremacists marching in our streets, of a presidential pardon for a modern-day Bull Connor, Sheriff Joe Arpaio; a transgender ban in the military; and draconian immigration policies that suggest a corrosion of the soul. We celebrate the March on Washington in the full light of the disaster of Donald Trump and his “presidency of hate.”

As it has always been, much more is required of us than easy condemnations or the traditional theater of American racial politics. James Baldwin was right 54 years ago today: The American white republic must answer, once and for all, the question that haunts it: why do you need ‘niggers’ in the first place?

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