American Experience
Three Perspectives Three Perspectives

video | transcript

Select a Clip:Introduction: Dr. Kenneth ClarkMartin Luther KingMalcolm XJames Baldwin

James Baldwin (6:29): part 1 | 2 | 3

James Baldwin: It was a great shock to me -- I want to say this on the air -- The attorney general did not know --

Dr. Kenneth Clark: You mean the attorney general of the United States?

Baldwin: Mr. Robert Kennedy -- didn't know that I would have trouble convincing my nephew to go to Cuba, for example, to liberate the Cubans in defense of a government which now says it is doing everything it can do, which cannot liberate me. Now, there are 20 million people in this country, and you can't put them all in jail. I know how my nephew feels, I know how I feel, I know how the cats in the barbershop feel.

A boy last week, he was sixteen, in San Francisco, told me on television -- thank God we got him to talk -- maybe somebody thought to listen. He said, "I've got no country. I've got no flag." Now, he's only 16 years old, and I couldn't say, "you do." I don't have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house, because San Francisco is engaging -- as most Northern cities now are engaged -- in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out. It means Negro removal, that is what it means. The federal government is an accomplice to this fact.

Now, we are talking about human beings, there's not such a thing as a monlithic wall or some abstraction called the Negro problem, these are Negro boys and girls, who at 16 and 17 don't believe the country means anything that it says and don't feel they have any place here, on the basis of the performance of the entire country.

Clark: But now, Jim --

Baldwin: Am I exaggerating?

Clark: No, I certainly cannot say that you are exaggerating, but there is this picture of a group of young Negro college students in the South, coming from colleges where the whole system seems to conspire to keep them from having courage, integrity, clarity, and the willingness to take the risks which they have been taking for these last three or four years. Could you react to the student non-violent movement which has made such an impact on America, which has affected both Negroes and whites, and seems to have jolted them out of the lethargy of tokenism and moderation? How do you account for this?

Baldwin: Well, of course, one of the things I think that happened, Ken, really, is that in the first place, the Negro has never been as docile as white Americans wanted to believe. That was a myth. We were not singing and dancing down on the levee -- we were trying to keep alive; we were trying to survive. It was a very brutal system.

The Negro has never been happy in this place. What those kids first of all proved -- first of all, they proved that. They come from a long line of fighters and what they also prove (I want to get to your point, really) is not that the Negro has changed, but that the country has arrived at a place where he can no longer contain the revolt, he can no longer, as he could do once --

Let's say I was a Negro college president, and I needed a new chemistry lab, so I was a Negro leader, I was a Negro leader because the white man said I was, and I came to get a new chemistry lab, "please suh," and the tacit price I paid for the chemistry lab was to control the people I represented. And now I can't do that.

When the boy said this afternoon -- we were talking to a Negro student this afternoon who has been through it all, who's half dead and only about 25, Jerome Smith. That's an awful lot to ask a person to bear. The country sat back in admiration of all those kids for three or four or five years, and has not lifted a finger to help them.

Now, we all knew. I know you knew, and I knew too, that a moment was coming when we couldn't guarantee, that no one can guarantee, that he won't reach the breaking point, you know? You can only survive so many beatings, so much humiliation, so much despair, so many broken promises, before something gives. Human beings are not by nature non-violent. Those children had to pay a terrible price in discipline, in moral discipline -- an interior effort of courage which the country cannot imagine, because it still thinks Gary Cooper, for example, was a man -- I mean his image, I have nothing against him, you know, him.

Clark: You said something -- that you cannot expect them to remain constantly non-violent?

Baldwin: No, you can't! And, furthermore, they were always, these students that we are talking about, a minority. The students we are talking about were not in Tallahassee. There were some students protesting, but there were many, many, many, many more students who had given up, who were desperate and who Malcolm X can reach, for example, much more easily than I can.

Clark: What do you mean?

Baldwin: What Malcolm tells them, in effect, is that they should be proud of being black, and God knows that they should be. That is a very important thing to hear in a country which assures you that you should be ashamed of it. Of course, in order to do this, what he does is destroy a truth and invent a history. What he does is say, "you're better because you're black." Well, of course that isn't true. That's the trouble.