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Friday, January 14, 2011

James Baldwin on hearing Martin Luther King preach in Montgomery

In 1961 Harper’s Magazine commissioned James Baldwin to write a profile of Martin Luther King. Baldwin had first met King in 1958, a little more than a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott (which King had helped lead) had ended in a federal decree outlawing desegregation on public buses. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” Baldwin, once a teenage preacher himself, offers one of the most vivid and insightful accounts of what it was like to hear the twenty-nine-year-old King:
King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them.  He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.
Most preachers, Baldwin notes, offer their congregation only “the sustenance for another day’s journey.” King by contrast made everyone who heard him feel they could “change their situation.” Baldwin quotes an example:
“. . . And we’ve got to stop lying to the white man. Every time you let the white man think you think segregation is right, you are co-operating with him in doing evil.
“The next time,” he said, “the white man asks you what you think of segregation, you tell him, Mr. Charlie, I think it’s wrong and I wish you’d do something about it by nine o’clock tomorrow morning!”
This brought a wave of laughter and King smiled, too. But he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them. They also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny.
Previously on Reader’s Almanac:
Related LOA works: James Baldwin: Collected Essays


  1. Indeed, this is such a keen and exacting insight as to why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was such a vital force of positive change. Bravo, Mr. Baldwin for explaining it, as all things you have explained, so poignantly.

  2. The following was omitted by READERS ALMANAC:
    "We know" he told them, "that there are
    many things wrong in the white world. But there
    are many things wrong in the black world, too.
    We can't keep on blaming the white man. There
    are many things we must do for ourselves."
    He suggested what some of these were:
    "I know none of you make enough money—
    but save some of it. And there are some things
    we've got to face. I know the situation is re-
    sponsible for a lot of it, but do you know that
    Negroes are 10 per cent of the population of St.
    Loius and are responsible for 58 per cent of its
    crimes? We've got to face that. And we have to
    do something about our moral standards. (Now continue on with blurb above from READERS ALMANAC)...And we've got to stop lying...

  3. As MLK was wholly not aware then, neither is the populus keenly aware today-to any discerning degree-the disparity which which Black men face penance in our criminal-justice system vs. the White male population.

    I say discerning degree because though it is known there is great disparity-figures published in 2003 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, for example have been oft-published-little if any effort has been made to uncover reasons for the disparity. You and I know crimes are not committed in the African-American demographic at a higher rate than any other demographic. Our system of justice simply puts a net out to catch and filter that demographic to the Black community's demise and the White community's profit.

    The veil is being pulled back, and as Baldwin points out in the remainder of this essay, White America is preparing for a funeral. It has been a longer processional than you wise have expected, and this election cycle represents as grand a stand as any for certain, but oppression and subjugation by the majority demographic is being laid to rest ever so slowly.


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