During the politically-turbulent 1960s, Baldwin lent his voice as a public speaker to the struggle for racial equality. He once stated that even though he had left the church as a child preacher, he had never left the pulpit. As he embarked on his career as a writer and public intellectual, Baldwin continued to hone his skill as an outspoken orator.
In the spring of 1963, Baldwin embarked on a speaking tour with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In these speeches, Baldwin used his powerful, often challenging, orations to dissect issues of social injustice, the immorality of racism, and systemic inequities within the United States.
Baldwin’s lecture tours, articles, and frequent speaking and media appearances made many see him as a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. However, he himself rejected the roles of leader or spokesman. “A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others,” Baldwin told Julius Lester in a 1984 interview. “I never assumed that I could.” Instead, Baldwin thought of himself as a witness, “a witness to whence I came, where I am ... witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.” Through this lens, what Baldwin “tried to do, or to interpret and make clear, was that no society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in that society.” Baldwin was an exceptional witness for the Movement. Henry Louis Gates said that Baldwin had “educated an entire generation of Americans about the civil-rights struggle and the sensibility of Afro-Americans as we faced and conquered the final barriers in our long quest for civil rights.”
In 1965 at Cambridge University in the U.K., Baldwin gave an unprecedented and compelling speech in a debate with The National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr. The debate topic was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Over 600 undergraduate students gathered in the debating hall of the Cambridge Union, as others clamored to get inside. Baldwin argued that the American Dream had come to fruition on the backs of enslaved people—that primarily free labor during slavery and the “Negro’s” cheap labor in ensuing years served as the economic foundation of the United States. He further explained the structural and cultural violence inflicted upon African Americans from childhood to adulthood and how this violence made the American Dream elusive for the “American Negro,” who was one-ninth of the population. At the end of his speech, Baldwin received a standing ovation and won the debate with 544 votes in favor of the motion that the American Dream is at the expense of the Negro and 164 votes against the motion, which carried by 380 votes.
In July of 1968, James Baldwin gave one of his major speeches in Uppsala, Sweden at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Fourth Assembly. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slated to speak at the opening but was assassinated three months before the event, so Baldwin was asked to speak in his place. Baldwin accepted the invitation and issued a challenge to the assembly: “Christianity still has the power to move the world if it will. It still has the power to change the structure of South Africa, to prevent the assassination of another Martin Luther King, to force my country to stop dropping bombs on southeast Asia.” Baldwin’s speech contributed to the formation of the WCC’s Programme to Combat Racism, considered a significant advancement for the Council.
In addition to giving speeches at sites of national and international prominence, Baldwin spoke across the country, from the east coast to the west coast, at smaller, lesser-known venues. When traveling to the Bay Area in California, Baldwin not only met with activists Angela Davis and Huey Newton but also presented at various educational institutions, including high schools, such as Berkeley High School, where he addressed students in the classroom of Richard Navies, a coordinator of the pioneering African American studies department at the school. Wherever he spoke, Baldwin often articulated the fears, struggles, and aspirations of the silenced and unheard.