Black History Month: The Writer of the Civil Rights Movement

James Baldwin

Meet the civil rights writer that moved a nation through his essays and plays, who broke the norm as he discussed topics such as same sex relationships and interracial marriage. His name was James Baldwin. Born in Harlem, New York, on August 2, 1924, Baldwin’s passion for writing began at an early age, as well as his association with the church due to his stepfather. After finishing high school, he worked many jobs to support his family while also writing his novel. However, in 1948, he made the choice to move to Paris. Five years later, his debut novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, a loose biography, was published. It explored themes of representation while also having a hopeful tone for the future. His essay Notes of a Native Son came out in 1955. Once again, Baldwin dove into themes of race, class, and culture. In 1978, he published Just Above My Head, which explored same-sex relationships. He believed that sexuality isn’t as set in stone as the U.S. claimed it was, but is instead more fluid. His other works include interracial marriage. His play The Amen Corner would be on Broadway in the mid 1960s, and his 1963 novel The Fire Next Time was an assortment of essays. Its main goal was to educate white Americans by putting them in a Black person’s perspective. Emmett Till’s murder was adapted by Baldwin in Blues for Mister Charlie, which played on Broadway in 1964. Nothing Personal was published as a tribute to Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader. The assassinations of activists Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X impacted his writing, as his work became more urgent. No Names in the Street (1972) was the beginning of this change. While Baldwin wasn’t a traditional activist, he was considered one of the Civil Rights movement’s leaders. He also worked with Alec Haley during this time to write the screenplay for a film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He also shared his experiences as a college professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Hampshire College. Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in his home at St. Paul de Vence, France. He described himself as a “witness to truth.”

Learn more about James Baldwin with this great video.

— Maya Ross