Although Baldwin often considered himself a “witness” to the Civil Rights Movement, this role did not bar him from actively participating in some of the Movement’s most critical, influential events. Indeed, as he states in his photo-text authored with Richard Avedon in Nothing Personal, the role of the witness does not mean that one must be a passive observer. After his first trip to the South in 1957, Baldwin embarked on demonstrations, marches, and speaking engagements both nationally and internationally throughout the 1960s.
In 1963, the violent riot that erupted in response to James Meredith’s attempts to integrate Ole Miss moved Baldwin to action. It represented ongoing struggles for equality and school integration more than five years after the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. On New Year’s Day of 1963, he embarked on a lecture tour throughout the South for CORE. One of his first stops was Jackson, Mississippi where he got to know Meredith, whom he described as “one of the noblest people I have met.” In Jackson, Baldwin met another man who would become a Civil Rights icon—Medgar Evers, the chief NAACP officer in Mississippi. Evers was a strong, persistent, and fearless leader in the Movement. He and Baldwin immediately hit it off. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin calls Evers “a great man, ... a beautiful man” who was a “troublemaker” in a way that Baldwin respected. In a 1969 interview with Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch, Baldwin also recalls that during his time in Mississippi, the two men visited people in their homes at night “behind locked doors, lights down” to investigate the racially motivated murder of a black man in the back country.
On his lecture tour, Baldwin made a dozen appearances throughout the South, from Greensboro, North Carolina to New Orleans, Louisiana and several places in between. In his visits he often lectured in churches, preaching his gospel of social justice to majority white audiences, and articulated fears for future generations. “Most of us have arrived at a point where we don’t know what to tell our children.” During a CORE Speaking Tour stop in New Orleans in 1963, he criticized white inaction, self-centered beliefs, and racism, telling his audiences the black community doesn’t “want to be like you.” “There is no reason whatever for Negroes to want to enter white society” because “I wasn’t bought at auction ... and you still treat me as if I had been.”
After returning from his travels in the South, Baldwin remained active. In New York City he joined Lorraine Hansberry, Linus Pauling, David Dellinger, Conrad Lynn, and others in a demonstration at the Anti-Defamation League to protest their conferring the Democratic Legacy award to President Kennedy despite his paltry Civil Rights record. Baldwin also participated in Movement activities abroad. He spoke to black Britons in London and led a demonstration of fellow American nationals through the streets of Paris in support of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Compelled to join the landmark demonstrations of the 1960s, Baldwin attended both the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March. Baldwin’s friend and ally in the Movement, Bayard Rustin, was a central figure in organizing both marches. Like Baldwin, Rustin was an openly gay African American man fighting for Civil Rights at a time when the monikers “gay” or “homosexual” would have brought persecution. As a result of systemic homophobia, both men were relegated to more behind-the-scenes roles at these demonstrations. Though Baldwin attended both marches, he was not invited to speak at either.
While walking with his fellow demonstrators in Alabama, Baldwin “could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its color from the blood that had dripped down from these trees.” Violence weighed heavily on Baldwin. In the preface to his 1964 play, Blues for Mister Charlie, Baldwin wrote: “What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being, then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”
Throughout his life, Baldwin abhorred violence and promoted non-violent direct action. But as the Civil Rights Movement wore on throughout the 1960s, he became more radical, and even included a gun inside the pulpit of Reverend Henry’s church in the final scenes of Blues For Mister Charlie. He was deeply affected by the brutal assassinations of his friends within the Movement—Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. He felt compelled to act after hearing the news of the violence around Meredith’s arrival at Ole Miss, the death of four young girls at the hands of a bomber within the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the violence throughout the deep South, all of which deeply affected Baldwin’s relationship to the Movement.
He allied his thinking with the more progressive elements of the Movement, SNCC and CORE, over the more moderate NAACP and SCLC. While at the March on Washington, Baldwin was upset to learn that leaders forced speeches to be watered down for main stream audiences. In a 1977 interview with Gil Noble on his program Like It Is, Baldwin scoffed at the removal of the allegedly “militant rhetoric” of the speech by John Lewis. Baldwin himself was prevented from speaking at the event. As Malcolm X put it in a 1963 speech “Message to the Grass Roots”: “They wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there because they know Baldwin is liable to say anything.” As Baldwin wrote in the Introduction to Michael Thelwell’s Duties, Pleasures, and Conflicts, he was “terrified” by what he viewed as “the official and semi-official opposition” to the March. However, there was “no way of stopping the people from descending on Washington ... What struck me most horribly was that virtually no one in power (including some blacks or Negroes who were somewhere next door to power) was able, even remotely, to accept the depth, the dimension, of the passion and the faith of the people.” The disconnect between a passionate movement on the ground and a resistant leadership often left Baldwin feeling disillusioned by the strategy of non-violence. Although he was not inclined to join either organization, Baldwin came to understand the appeal of the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. He gave an account of his meeting with Elijah Muhammad in The Fire Next Time and described his rejection of his ideology while at the same time praising his effective assistance to impoverished black communities. Following Malcolm X’s return from Mecca, Baldwin was also much more supportive of Malcolm and his more inclusive stance.
Baldwin’s activism spread beyond the American Civil Rights Movement. As a true world citizen, he was deeply concerned with injustice across the globe. As Baldwin scholar Rich Blint explains, “the content of Baldwin’s transnationalism is founded in his ethical resolve to pursue the human condition beyond all the concrete abstractions—race, religion, sexuality, and country, etc.—that we inherit.” Baldwin became involved in early anti-war demonstrations against the situation in Vietnam and already in 1963, he referenced it as a serious geopolitical issue. In his famous 1970 writing, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” he defends Davis, who was on the Most Wanted list due to her anti-war activism. He also underscores the impact of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the Army and to serve in Vietnam at a time when Americans were fleeing to Canada to escape the draft.
Baldwin worked against the forces of colonization in Africa as well. He was not sentimental about Africa as his ancestral home, yet he sometimes lamented the psychic and cultural distances between Africans from the continent and African Americans. In his essay “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown” (1955), Baldwin states that “they face each other, the Negro and the African, over a gulf of three hundred years—an alienation too vast to be conquered in an evening’s good-will, too heavy and too double-edged ever to be trapped in speech.” Despite this lack of understanding between the groups that both claimed the continent as their motherland, Baldwin often railed against apartheid in South Africa, likening the conditions of African miners to U.S. slavery. In 1986 Baldwin wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, stating that the two groups historically had lived in a common hell.
On the issue of gay activism, Baldwin was not very outspoken and did not label himself as “gay,” although he never concealed his sexuality. In a 1984 interview with The Village Voice, Baldwin states that “the word gay has always rubbed me the wrong way ... I simply feel it’s a word that has little to do with me.” This reluctance stems from the fact that for Baldwin, sexuality could not be encompassed by the binary of straight and gay. “My involvements with men and women, what can I say about them to the world? It’s not to be talked about to the world. I’ve loved a few men, I’ve loved a few women, and a few people have loved me,” he explains in Sedat Pakay’s film. Additionally, Baldwin thought of his desires as very personal and found ideas surrounding emerging, mostly white, gay life and culture to be “remote” from him. At the same time, as his 1985 essay "Here Be Dragons" attests, he was profoundly interested in the instability of gender and sexual categories, in androgyny, and non-normative self-presentation that arguably anticipates today’s transgender movement.
Humanistic and humanitarian to the core, Baldwin embraced all elements of himself and did not feel shame about his sexual desires or sexual history, which he owned as a complex human being. He depicted male gay and bisexual characters in ways that modeled respect, and he recognized the dignity of gay people in works such as Giovanni’s Room and in his adaptation of John Herbert’s play, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, performed at Istanbul’s theater in 1969-70. This attitude in and of itself, in a time when homosexuality was derided, made Baldwin a powerful ally for the LGBTQ community. As he told The Village Voice, he felt “very strongly for my brothers and sisters” within the gay liberation movements. While he did not create any outwardly lesbian characters, he learned much from black feminists—especially Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde—and created strong female characters in several of his novels.