A Baldwinite’s Regret

Photo by Allan warren | CC BY 2.0

As much as this fruitful world has to offer there are special moments we will never experience. And though technology has done a fascinating job facilitating some of our disadvantages, it will always remain that way. The minds of silicone valley are steadfast but I doubt if they can come up with an App that neutralizes human defects – like vanity, jealousy, megalomania, denial, and perhaps the most debilitating flaw of all – self-righteousness: A human component that sits inconspicuously in the midst of some of our tragic failures and missed opportunities. One such incident took place fifty-five years ago. A moment so egregious it blotches the pages of history, and stained, what could’ve truly been, a glorious day.

In the summer of 1963, considerations were given for James Baldwin to speak at the fabled March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. By that time, he had already graced the cover of TIME magazine, and his magnum opus, “The Fire Next Time” had struck the arid plains of Jim Crow America like a bolt of lightning; so, having him speak would seem a logical choice. But for self-righteous reasons that I’m sure was discussed under the perceived agency of logic, Baldwin was spurned. James Baldwin, one of the most intellectually endowed critical thinkers of the 20th century.

Luminaries like Baldwin are precious, and usually not around as long as we would like them to be, which is why we should fall sylphlike into the lotus position whenever they are inclined to impart their once-in-a-generation perspective. Luckily for us Baldwin left a copious amount of work behind. Everything from fiction, non-fiction, essays, debates, poems, interviews and speeches can be found in a cannon that runneth over and saturates inquisitive minds everywhere. But the March on Washington was a monumental point in time, one in which Baldwin seemed born to seize. A moment that was snatched from him, and in-turn taken from us. A speech, that if not for self-righteousness, could have been the smelling salts underneath the nose of an unconscious race of people, charged with the clamant task of healing this country.

The speech I’m envisioning obliterates the glass of water Baldwin wrote for Burt Lancaster that day. No, a real Baldwin speech had to be executed with his eloquent flair. It would’ve entailed bullet points jotted on a piece of paper that allowed him the freedom to read the crowd, and improvise, according to how he was feeling at the moment. That’s the way Baldwin did it. The same way, ironically, Dr. King was allowed to deliver his legendary monologue.

I know leading up to the march Dr. King had done a lot for the civil rights movement, and as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, one of the Big Six that organized the event, he carried a certain cache. But he wasn’t the only freedom fighter that year sacrificing precious time that could’ve been invested in more personal undertakings.

While The Fire Next Time was becoming the unofficial writ of the civil rights movement, Baldwin, at the request of the Congress of Racial Equality was delivering his sagacious brand of oral presentation throughout the south.

Baldwin was a fixture on television talk (and radio) shows, and accompanied by Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry and others, he met with US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, in an effort to entice President John Kennedy to make a moral commitment to racial injustice.

To quote David Leeming, author of Baldwin: A Biography, James Baldwin and the loyalists at the meeting “saw the race problem as having moral dimensions that transcended the particular concerns of the day. They wanted something from the Kennedy’s that went beyond civil rights laws.”

While back in Paris France, Baldwin even organized a group of prominent expatriates to talk about the march, and what they could do to show their support. Author Mary L. Dudziak, in a journal titled, “The 1963 March on Washington: At Home and Abroad,” reports that “a drafting committee” was formed, and with the help of actors William Marshall, Anthony Quinn and others, Baldwin composed a “brief petition,”  which (by way of the international editions of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune) was signed by hundreds of Americans living abroad.

The European endeavor alone was enough to grant Baldwin the same platform given to Dr. King, August 28, 1963. And if that’s true, the question then becomes – why was Baldwin denied?

The consummate adult in times of conflict, Baldwin never publicly revealed why he wasn’t allowed to grace the podium at the Lincoln Memorial. Journalist Herb Boyd, author of Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin, may have unearthed the only near occurrence. Boyd claims, in a 1977 interview on Gil Noble’s landmark television show “Like it is” Baldwin explained how: “he conceded (to the Big Six) in order to avoid another rift similar to the one that had surrounded John Lewis’s speech, which had to be rewritten with all the militant rhetoric extracted.”

Known for his animadversions Baldwin must’ve been extremely hurt to have never broached the snub openly, but his typical candor would have made it a less circuitous topic if he had. In other words, in order to unlock the truth, one is left to evaluate the indirect statements and actions of the event’s collusive panjandrum’s – The Big Six:

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

– A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP).

– Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

– Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League (NUL).

– John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

And – James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Their collegiate appellation may sound facetious but these men and their institutions were no gregarious fraternity, they were an integrated front, formally recognized as the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. However, with all the in-fighting, bad blood and different agendas, the group, conceived June 20, 1963, got off to a foreboding start.

Baldwin, having just left a harmonious leadership council in France was troubled by the cantankerous atmosphere he encountered in Washington DC, but as Leeming points out, there were things that “particularly horrified”  him.

According to Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable – “Roy Wilkins demanded that Bayard Rustin be fired as coordinator (of the march) because of his homosexuality and record of arrest.”

Leeming noted, “Baldwin knew, that people (like Wilkins and Baptist preacher/politician, Adam Clayton Powell) were weary of his own reputation as a homosexual.”

And author Colm Toibin, in a piece titled “The Henry James of Harlem (Pt 2)”, even revealed how one of Dr. King’s colleagues, a lawyer named Stanley Levison, suggested that Baldwin and Bayard – “were better qualified to lead a homosexual movement than a civil rights movement.”

To be fair,  in a 1987 interview he did with the actor, Redvers Jeanmarie, Bayard Rustin stated – “It (referring to his homosexuality) was never a prejudicial situation; it was that given the attitude at that time people felt that this was a problem.”

Be that that it may, the fact that homosexuality came into play during the strategic planning of a “civil rights” event is utterly outrageous. And just because Rustin was too invaluable to fall victim to the inane paranoia associated with homophobia, does not mean Baldwin wasn’t victimized by it. Unfortunately, homophobia wouldn’t be the only vice tossed around at late night meetings held by the Big Six; sexism and its pharisaic poison seeped into the march as well.

In “Where Were the Woman in the March on Washington?”  an intriguing piece published in New Republic magazine, the author, Jennifer Scanlon tells how Dorothy Height, of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), wanted her co-president Anna Arnold Hedgeman to speak at the march – “but the men refused, and provided a variety of excuses (to substantiate their decision)”: “The list of speakers was already too long; it would be too difficult to select one woman; (and) if they did choose one, others would be jealous.”  

The undignified last statement prompted Scanlon to write: “The idea that women alone suffered from jealousy would be laughable to women watching the male leaders jockey for status and recognition.”

With their blatant homophobic “concerns” and sexist displays fairly documented, men like Randolph, Wilkins, Powell and Levison were not that difficult to track, but there was one affiliate of the Big Six who was not as forthright with his self-righteous perspective. A man whose moral compass pointed benevolently north – towards the heavens.

I have to admit, from a literary standpoint it’s hard to accuse Dr. King of being a practicing homophobe. My opinion is based on his relationship with Bayard Rustin, and the opening comments of his candid interview: “It is difficult for me to know what Dr. king felt about gayness except to say that I’m sure he would have been sympathetic and would not have had the prejudicial view. Otherwise he would have not hired me.”

Rustin goes on to say, He never felt it necessary to discuss that with me.” “My being gay was not a problem with Dr. King but a problem for the movement.

Where King stood on the participation of women in the march is a clandestine opinion that will probably never reach the ubiquitous grapevine of print, but by way of taped F.B.I. recordings, a deprecating critique of his, one that exposes his sentiment on James Baldwin and his oratory prowess, leaked out into the open.

In an article published in The New Yorker titled, – “Breaking Into James Baldwin’s House” author and journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, while chiding a few black intellectuals for “picking Baldwin apart” states, “even Martin Luther King Jr., in a conversation secretly recorded by the F.B.I., expressed ambivalence about appearing with the author on television, claiming to be, “Put off by the poetic exaggeration in Baldwin’s approach to race issues.”

What’s unsettling is the connotation of intolerance spewing from Dr. King’s statement. A quality you think would reside in a man of a more, provincial ilk.

One would have to be cognitively obtuse to believe, of the 250,000 people that participated in the march a great number of them were not atheist – And yet they showed up, fully aware, that Dr. King’s keynote address would likely pay homage to a doctrine they did not adhere to. It would’ve been nice if King, in regards to Baldwin’s “poetic exaggeration,” could have paid the same level of leniency forward.

It’s obvious that James Baldwin, a victim of the sanctimonious perceptions of the mid 20th century, was denied the chance to present his insightful reality check that August afternoon, and all we were left with was Dr. Kings fantastical dream – a bouquet of flowers wrapped in the enchanting cadence of a Baptist sermon.

Flowers are a lovely token to bestow, but they wither over time – while reality, like the crystal carbon of a gemstone can scintillate for an eternity. Baldwin’s literature and speeches are the valuable gems he left this world, which likens Dr. King and his religious band of gatekeepers to jewel thieves – and makes silencing a voice like Baldwin’s – at an event as pivotal as the March on Washington – one of the greatest heists in American history.