Commissioned by Harper’s Magazine to write on the civil rights movement, Baldwin first became acquainted with Martin Luther King during a trip through the South in 1957. Baldwin’s exposure to King and southern racism had a profound influence on his writing and helped deepen his lifelong commitment to social justice. In a 1960 letter to King Baldwin wrote: “I am one of the millions, to be found all over the world but more especially here, in this sorely troubled country, who thank God for you” (Papers 5:461).
The oldest of nine children, James Baldwin was born on 2 August 1924. At a young age, Baldwin showed promise as an exceptional orator and writer, and at age 14 he became a child preacher at Harlem’s Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, only to reject the ministry three years later. In 1942 he graduated from the politically progressive De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, marking the end of his formal education. After working a series of service jobs to support his family, Baldwin moved to Greenwich Village, where he dedicated himself to writing. In 1946 Baldwin published his first article in The Nation magazine, and by 1948 he had become a well-known essayist, winning the Rosenwald Fellowship that enabled him to move to Paris to write. While in Europe, Baldwin completed his first and most acclaimed novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). In 1957 Baldwin returned to the United States, becoming a commentator on the civil rights movement.
After the 1961 publication of Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, a collection of essays exploring race relations in the United States, King wrote the author, offering the following words of appreciation: “Your analysis of the problem is always creative and penetrating. Your honesty and courage in telling the truth to white Americans, even if it hurts, is most impressive” (King, 26 September 1961).
Although sometimes critical of King’s nonviolent methods, Baldwin remained an influential voice for civil rights reform. Baldwin attended the 1963 March on Washington, and his most powerful collection of essays, The Fire Next Time, which predicted a dangerous race war if relations did not improve in the United States, was published following the march. In December 1987 James Baldwin died of stomach cancer in his home in southern France.