Baldwin’s first novel Go Tell it on the Mountain was widely praised when it came out in 1953. However, when he went to his publisher with his second novel, Giovanni’s Room he was told to burn it. The book didn’t shy away from bisexuality or homosexuality and was met with controversy in 1956.
Baldwin’s activism was transformative. He moved back to the U.S. from Paris in the late 50’s before traveling to Montgomery, Alabama to interview those living under Jim Crow. By the 60’s, he was giving lectures on civil rights at college campuses all over the country, and the audiences were widely white liberals. Soon, his assessments of race in America and his accounts of being black in America were too rallying to ignore.
His insight would be invaluable to lawmakers. After expressing to Robert Kennedy that the U.S. Government was widely responsible for violence arising in Birmingham, the two met for breakfast at Kennedy’s apartment. A second meeting came later and with other formidable activists: Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne, and others. Baldwin would be instrumental in coordinating the March on Jobs and the wave of civil disobedience following the Birmingham church bombing.
His body of work ranges from novels to plays to essays to short stories. Baldwin was a force and—like his comrades Hansberry, Belafonte, and Horne—knew that art and artistry are some of the most useful weapons against evil.
“I think that no one any longer can be fooled about the intentions of the American government because they’ve made it perfectly clear. And that may be the most healthy thing that has happened in this time. Nobody, after all, can say anything for the present administration. It represents the American illusion that it’s a white country, that it’s a white world and that they can make it a white universe — the moon is our first colony.” -James Baldwin in a 1970 interview for Come Out!, the Gay Liberation Front magazine.