Author James Baldwin (1924-1987) spoke at Seattle's Egyptian Theatre on May 6, 1963, in a fundraiser for the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Murray Morgan (1916-2000) covered the speech for his radio news program. This script that Morgan wrote for his broadcast was contributed to HistoryLink by his daughter Lane Morgan.
"A Devotion to the Human Being"
"Let us say, then, that truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted. This is the prime concern, the frame of reference; it is not to be confused with a devotion to Humanity which is too easily equated with a devotion to a Cause; and Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty."
James Baldwin wrote the above lines in 1949 at the start of a career which has seen him emerge as this country's best essayist and a gifted novelist, the master of a prose style that embraces simplicity, power, and insight.
He came to Seattle for a few hours this week, a thin little man in a jacket somewhat too large for him, a wiry little man, calm amid the confusion of a dozen speeches, press conferences, quickie coffee hours, and taped interviews; a man with great brooding eyes that dominate a face that speaks of tragedy and endurance.
His message was simple. The Negro no longer accepts endurance as his fate. The lot of the Negro must change. The change cannot wait the slow processes of gradualism; the rights eked out by the courts, the concessions grudgingly yielded by Southern schoolboards and northern landlords; the slow accretion of political power that comes with increased voter registration. The lot of the Negro must be changed, now, through his acceptance by the whites, right now, as a human being and an equal.
Tokenism is not the answer, Baldwin said. The Negro does not accept the white as a moral superior who has the right to mete out the benefits of civilization to black men, a bit at a time.
"We have lived in your houses as servants and we have seen how you live, and we do not acknowledge that your lives are more moral than ours. I doubt they are as moral. It is not you who have produced a generation of students willing to march unarmed against the southern policemen and their clubs and dogs. It is not you who have given birth to those aristocratic children who can walk head high through a howling mob into a kindergarten."
Not all Negro students, or all their leaders, embrace Gandhi. The alternative to acceptance, Baldwin warned, is violence. Violence which the Negro knows is not the answer, but violence which will further degrade the white with more blood spilled to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority.
"FREEDOM NOW" said the CORE button on Baldwin's jacket.
Toward the close of the day someone asked him, "What about your feeling that embracing a capital-C Cause can be the death of a literary artist?"
"I still feel that way," said James Baldwin, his brooding eyes showing the pain of a personal loss. "But there is nothing I can do about it. This is a cause that has embraced me."