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From James Baldwin

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Author: Baldwin, James

Date: May 26, 1960?

Location: Tallahassee, Fla.

Genre: Letter

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views


After being asked by Harper’s Magazine to profile King, writer James Baldwin requests a meeting and raises the possibility of being “allowed to follow you about for a day or two” in order “to convey some dim approximation of what it is like to be in your position.” He added: "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.” Baldwin's essay appeared in the February 1961 issue of Harper’s.1

Dear Reverend King:

I certainly do not expect you to remember it, but we met over two years ago, in Atlanta. I was then doing a couple of articles about the South, and I am in the South again, for the same purpose.2

I am writing you now because Harpers Magazine has asked me to do a profile of you, and I am coming to Atlanta—I do not know whether you are there or not, but one must start somewhere—to see if this can be done. I know that you are extremely busy and my effort would be to bother you as little as possible. I have read your book, and Reddick’s book, so there are many things I will not need to ask you.3 If you will permit it, and if it is possible, I would simply like to be allowed to follow you about for a day or two, or longer, in order to be made able to convey some dim approximation of what it is like to be in your position.

The effect of your work, and I might almost indeed, say your presence, has spread far beyond the confines of Montgomery, as you must know. It can be felt, for example, right here in Tallahassee.4 And 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.

I will be in your church on Sunday, and if you recieve this letter, and if you are there, I trust we will be able to talk.

Very sincerely,
James Baldwin

1. Baldwin, “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1961, pp. 33-42. Following the article’s publication, King wrote Baldwin that his article had allowed readers to appreciate “the dilemma that I confront as a leader in the civil rights struggle” (King to Baldwin, 26 September 1961). James Arthur Baldwin (1924-1987) was born in Harlem, New York. In 1946 Baldwin published his first article in The Nation and by 1948 had become a well-known essayist. That same year he received a Rosenwald Fellowship, which enabled him to move to Paris where he completed his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953). In 1957 he returned to the United States, becoming a commentator on the civil rights movement. Baldwin established a reputation as a social critic, traveling on a 1963 lecture tour with CORE and publishing The Fire Next Time (1963), a collection of essays. In November 1968 Baldwin spoke at a tribute to King. When he died Baldwin was working on a play and a biography on King.

2. Baldwin, “The Hard Kind of Courage,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1958, pp. 61-65, and “Nobody Knows My Name: Letter from the South,” Partisan Review 26 (Winter 1959): 72-82. In Baldwin’s 1961 essay he reported that he had been surprised that King was unlike ”any preacher I have ever met before. For one thing, to state it baldly, I liked him. It is rare that one likes a world-famous man—by the time they become world-famous they rarely like themselves, which may account for this antipathy.”

3. Baldwin refers to King’s Stride Toward Freedom (1958) and Reddick’s biography of King, Crusader Without Violence (1959).

4. Baldwin was in Tallahassee to conduct research for an article on the city’s sit-in movement (Baldwin, “They Can’t Turn Back,” Madmoiselle, August 1960, pp. 324-325, 351). For more on the demonstrations in Tallahassee, see King to C. Kenzie Steele, 19 March 1960, pp. 391-392 in this volume.

Source: MLKP, MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers 1954-1968, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University, Boston, Mass. 

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