A Biography of King and Baldwin’s Complicated Relationship


Martin Luther King and James Baldwin were some of the greatest thinkers and exceptional writers back in time. Their literature knew no bounds. History documents them as civil rights icons, though many of their rough endeavors amid civil war remain untold. Though King and Baldwin had common interests and were great friends, at some point, they clashed, just like in any other relationship.

How Did James Baldwin and Luther King Meet?

The first time Baldwin and King met was in 1957 when Baldwin took a Deep South trip. It was during the Atlanta stop of his tour when he saw him. A year after the completion of the Montgomery bus boycott. The latter was a civil rights protest during which African Americans refused to ride city buses to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating.

During that time, King was an American Baptist minister and an activist who was the Montgomery civil rights movement’s spokesperson and leader. He was an outspoken being who preached and condemned non-violence and civil disobedience. He took part and chaired marches for blacks during his time. Following his bus boycott role, he transformed into a national figure and best-known spokesman for civil rights. He earned the position of the first President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

While at the Atlanta stop, Baldwin saw King deliver his sermon. He was not only impressed by his oratory ability but by the way he spoke with conviction. He immediately spotted a leader in him—someone who could withstand white aggression and inspire his people. Martin Luther had become a prominent name. Three years later, The Harper Magazine requested Baldwin to write a profile on him. However, Baldwin did not immediately respond, for he wrote a letter to King asking to meet him. The letter read:

“Dear Reverend King. I certainly do not expect you to remember it, but we met over two years ago in Atlanta. I was then working on a couple of articles about the South, and I am in the South again for the same reason. I write to you for Harper’s Magazine asks me to do a profile on you. 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. I am one of the millions, to be found all over the world but most especially here, in this sorely troubled country, who thank God for you.”

It was later when King replied to Baldwin’s letter. Although by this time, Baldwin had already published the letter. King told Baldwin that he was more than happy to know that he comprehended the dilemma he often confronted as a leader in the civil rights struggle.  His article had enlightened the readers of what he underwent, thus making people appreciate him more.

Baldwin Writes an Article Praising King

The article, which was published in 1961, talked about King’s unique works. The entire article complements King’s ability to lead and how he has impacted the lives of millions of people. When Baldwin was working on King’s profile, violence and racism were prone in the South. Therefore, through his literature, he tried to make King’s skeptical community understand his leadership approach.

Author James Baldwin poses for a photo during an interview in London.

In Harper’s story, Baldwin talks about the challenges that King faces. He states how King is troubled because he has to deal with the white enemies and his negro community, who have criticized him. They were bitter, mad and skeptical towards him. However, in conclusion, Baldwin narrates how King has impacted extraordinarily the Negro world.


The Divide in King and Baldwin’s Relationship

Baldwin’s prominence grew through his works of literature and his role as an activist. He traveled to the South, where he helped with civil rights movements and putting out pieces of literature advocating for civil rights. For instance, he took part in the massive voter drive movement in Selma in 1963. He was in part of some activist circles as King. However, he was more sympathetic and sometimes sided with black activists who endorsed more direct and aggressive action.

Therefore, while King and Malcolm X represented the two public poles of civil rights, Baldwin was indecisive, somewhere in the middle, with less tolerance and showing Christian love for partisans.

In 1963, Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, which comprised various essays and letters stressing the frustrations he felt because of America’s overboard racism and refuted what he called Church teachings. Growing up as a young man, he spent years working with organized religion as his father was a pastor. However, his becoming an adult changed his life, for he grew weary of the Church’s taught internalization.

He did not recognize the differences between the Southern Church that King led and his former north Church, where he spent most of his childhood. Nonetheless, he admired how King would force his community to acknowledge the realities of racism and at the same time calm them down. King was a preacher and an activist, though he did not use any aggressive or combative means.

When Baldwin started to learn about Islam, he realized that the Black Muslim Organization used an aggressive posture against systemic racism in the United States. Being that Baldwin had become a political celebrity, he met with the organization’s founder, Elijah Muhammad. Baldwin did not understand why the Muslim community was using violent means and hateful teachings to condemn racism. He couldn’t care less when the blacks living in the northern cities used similar means to fight racism.  For it was more prone in such towns.

While touring the South, Baldwin administered lectures and speeches, which taught the significance of non-violence. However, his method of teaching was a bit different from King’s. During the Farce on Washington rally, held by Malcolm X, King refuted Baldwin’s idea of addressing the people as he thought he was too inflammatory.

Death of King and Why Baldwin Never Wept

Martin Luther King succumbed on April 4th, 1968, at around 7:05 pm at St Joseph’s Hospital. Earlier that day, at around 6:01, an anonymous man fatally shot him at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray, an outlaw from the Missouri State Penitentiary, was arrested for King’s murder and charged with the crime. In 1969, Ray pleaded guilty, and the court sentenced him to 99 years in prison.

On the morning of King’s funeral, many government institutions and local businesses were not operating. It was the first time the New York Stock Exchange closed in honor of King. Up to a hundred and twenty million Americans had turned on their television to watch Luther’s funeral.  Scores of people came to Atlanta on that day. The city was parked. Maria Saporta, an Atlantan, who was then 12 years recalls.

James Baldwin happened to be among the visitor. He had received news of King’s assassination while working on an article to commemorate Malcome X. He traveled to Atlanta by himself, saddened by King’s demise. The last time he recalls seeing King was during an event at Carnegie Hall earlier in 1968. Baldwin had won a black suit to King’s funeral.

On April 9th, 1968, the people laid King’s body to rest. Earlier that day, Baldwin had left his hotel, headed to Ebenezer Baptist Church. He remembers struggling between multitudes to the crowd, trying to get to the church. While trying to force his way in, someone from the church recognized him and helped him gain entry. He followed him to the church and finally found a seat among the 1000 people. Baldwin describes the atmosphere in the church as black. Seeing Luther lain lifeless in a casket, a man who once voiced his opinion, preached to his congregation, was now without works.

As the service kicked off, Baldwin tried to control his emotions, fighting tears. He stated that he never wanted to weep for Martin, though tears seemed futile. His death was inhumane and had left a deep void in the hearts of many. He was afraid to start crying because he knew he would not stop, mostly as there were many more who grieved King’s death.

Abernathy led worth a word of prayer from the Old and New testaments. King’s Professor, Harold DeWolf, who came from Boston, delivered a short tribute to him. Then the Ebenezer choir sang one of King’s favorite hymns. After the choir finished, one of the choir members read out what Martin wished for during his funeral.

The mourners loaded King’s coffin on a wagon, just like he had envisioned amid his campaigns when he was alive. As Bernard Lafayette explained, the Wagon symbolized what King lived and died for. It highlighted his ties with laborers who were victims of racism in the south. King was a man who associated with the poor and had an admiration for his community. King’s assassination had changed people’s perspective on racial discrimination, not only the whites but also his negro community, who were skeptical about him.

The death of King confirmed what Baldwin had thought about the coldness of the white Americans. His rage for them had degenerated into a monster. He stated that although they came to King’s funeral, many were relieved by his death. More so as they thought most civil rights activists were pursuers of political ambition. It never occurred to them that they discriminated against and mistreated the blacks.




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