The History James Baldwin Wanted America to See

The History James Baldwin Wanted America to See
Bob Adelman/Magnolia Pictures via AP

On March 16, 1968, James Baldwin walked to the podium at a fund-raiser, at Anaheim’s Disneyland Hotel, to introduce Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had recently arrived in Los Angeles from New York, after Columbia Pictures had bought the rights to Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and asked Baldwin to write the script. Though eager, he had ended up fighting desperately to bring his story of Malcolm to the screen. Baldwin wanted Billy Dee Williams to play the lead, but the studio had other actors in mind. There were even rumors that someone had suggested a darkened Charlton Heston.

The fund-raiser was meant to replenish the coffers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) and to help fund King’s latest project, the Poor People’s Campaign. King wanted to make the case for massive direct action, in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the country’s impoverished. To do so, he would need to marshal greater financial resources than ever before. Desegregating lunch counters didn’t cost much, but ending poverty would cost the nation billions of dollars.

King found that many who once supported his desegregation efforts were less than enthusiastic about his agenda on jobs and poverty. The idea of occupying the nation’s capital with poor people scared many activists—even some on the board of the S.C.L.C. For others, such as Bayard Rustin, a trusted adviser to King since the days of the Montgomery bus boycott, such an act of civil disobedience courted violence and threatened to turn even more white Americans against the civil-rights agenda. Rustin wanted the S.C.L.C. to focus on electing Democrats to political office, not on building a tent city or staging sit-ins at congressional offices.

How Baldwin ended up at the fund-raiser is unclear, although Marlon Brando, who organized it, may have invited him; the two were close. In any case, Baldwin had not been expecting to introduce King, and his short speech said little about the leader. Instead, he told a brief story about the promise of the early days of the civil-rights movement, a promise that was betrayed by the country. “What Rosa Parks was saying in Montgomery, in 1956, and what the Negroes were saying in their march . . . the country did not want to hear or did not hear,” Baldwin told the audience. “And as time rolled on and kids, including people like Stokely Carmichael, were being beaten with chains, going to jail, marching up and down those dusty highways, trying to change the conscience of this country, still nobody heard and nobody really cared.” Baldwin’s speech was all about the wall of white supremacy that stood in the way of fundamental transformation. His was an effort to jog the memory and, by extension, the morality of the audience, by telling a different story about what happened to a movement on the brink of failure.

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