Read the landmark 1968 Q&A on race in America.
What about the white suburbanite who fled the city, while making sure the blacks stayed there? What does he have to do now?
If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They’re his cities, too. Or just ask himself why he left. I know why he left. He’s got a certain amount of money and certain future, a car, two cars, you know, scrubbed children, a scrubbed wife, and he wants to preserve all that. And he doesn’t understand that in his attempt to preserve it he’s going to destroy it.
If I go under in this country—I, the black man—the white man goes, too.
What about the poverty program, does that offer any remedy?
Are you joking? There has not been a war on poverty in this country yet. Not in my lifetime. The war on poverty is a dirty joke.
How would you improve it?
By beginning it.
In what fashion?
Look, there’s no way in the world to do it without attacking the power of some people. It cannot be done unless you do that. The power of the steel companies, for example, which can both make and break a town. And they’ve done it, they’re doing it. Everybody knows it. You can’t have a war on poverty unless you are willing to attack those people and limit their profits.
Is it a matter of limiting the profits of industries only, or is it also a matter of limiting the power of the politicians?
But the politicians are not working for the people; they’re working for exactly the people I say we have to attack. That is what has happened to politics in this country. That is why the political machinery now is so vast, and so complex no one seems to be able to control it. It’s completely unresponsive to the needs of the American community, completely unresponsive. I’m not talking only as a black man, I mean to the whole needs of the American people.
You mean in so far as it responds to industry?
It responds to what it considers its own survival.
What would you say ought to be done to improve the relationship of the police with the black community?
You would have to educate them. I really have no quarrel particularly with the policemen. I can see the trouble they’re in. They’re hopelessly ignorant and terribly frightened. They believe everything they see on television, as most people in this country do. They are endlessly respectable, which means to say they are Saturday-night sinners. The country has got the police force it deserves, and of course if a policeman sees a black cat in what he considers a strange place he’s going to stop him—and you know of course the black cat is going to get angry. And then somebody may die. But it’s one of the results of the cultivation in this country of ignorance. Those cats in the Harlem street, those white cops; they are scared to death and they should be scared to death. But that’s how black boys die, because the police are scared. And it’s not the policemen’s fault; it’s the country’s fault.
In the latest civil disorder, there seems to have been a more permissive attitude on the part of the police, much less reliance on firearms to stop looters as compared with last summer when there was such an orgy of shooting by the police and the National Guard.
I’m sorry, the story isn’t in yet, and furthermore, I don’t believe what I read in the newspapers. I object to the term “looters” because I wonder who is looting whom, baby.
How would you define somebody who smashes in the window of a television store and takes what he wants?
Before I get to that, how would you define somebody who puts a cat where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there. The question I’m trying to raise is a very serious question. The mass media-television and all the major news agencies-endlessly use that word “looter.” On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us, And no one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.
Would you make a distinction between snipers, fire bombers, and looters?
I’ve heard a lot of snipers, baby, and then you look at the death toll.
Very few white men, granted. But there have been a few.
I know who dies in the riots.
Well, several white people have died.
Several, yeah, baby, but do you know many Negroes have died?
Many more. But that’s why we’re talking about cooling it.
It is not the black people who have to cool it, because they won’t.
Aren’t they the one’s getting hurt the most, though?
That would depend on the point of view. You know, I’m not at all sure that we are the ones who are being hurt the most. In fact I’m sure we are not. We are the ones who are dying fastest.
The question posed, however, was whether snipers could be classified as true revolutionaries; fire bombers, as those overwhelmed with frustration and seeking to destroy the symbols of their discontent; looters, as victims of the acquisitive itch?
I have to ask you a very impertinent question. How in the world can you possibly begin to categorize the people of a community whom you do not know at all? I disagree with your classifications altogether. Those people are all in the streets for the same reason.
How in the world can you possibly begin to categorize the people of a community whom you do not know at all?
Does some of our problem come from our flaunting the so-called good life, with its swimming pools, cars, suburban living and so on, before a people whom society denies these things?
No one has ever considered what happens to a woman or a man who spends his working life downtown and then has to go home uptown. It’s too obvious even to go into it. We are a nation within a nation, a captive nation within a nation. Yes, and you do flaunt it. You talk about us as though we were not there. The real pain, the real danger is that white people have always treated Negroes this way. You’ve always treated Sambo this way. We always were Sambo for you—you know we had no feelings, we had no ears, no eyes. We’ve lied to you for more than a hundred years and you don’t even know it yet. We’ve lied to you to survive. And we’ve begun to despise you. We don’t hate you. We’ve begun to despise you. And it is because we can’t afford to care what happens to us, and you don’t care what happens to us. You don’t even care what happens to your own children. Because we have to deal with your children, too. We don’t care what happens to you. It’s up to you. To live or to die because you make your life that choice all these years.
What about the role of some of the black institutions. Does the church have some meaning still in the black community insofar as the possibility of social progress is concerned?
You must consider that the fact that we have a black church is, first of all, an indictment of a Christian nation. There shouldn’t be a black church. And that’s again what you did. We’ve used it. Martin Luther King used it most brilliantly, you know. That was his forum. It’s always been our only forum. But it doesn’t exist anywhere in the North anymore, as Martin Luther King himself discovered, it exists in the South, because the black community in the South is a different community. There’s still a Negro family in the South, or there was. There is no Negro family essentially in the North, and once you have no family you have no church. And that means you have no forum. It cannot be used in Chicago and Detroit. It can be used in Atlanta and Montgomery and those places. And now since Martin is dead—not before, but certainly since he is dead—that forum is no longer useful because people are repudiating their Christian church in toto.
Are they repudiating Christianity as well?
No more intensely than you have.
Then the black church is dead in the North?
Let me rephrase it. It does not attract the young. Once that happened to any organization, its social usefulness is at least debatable. Now that’s one of the great understatements of the century.
In that case, what is the role of Adam Clayton Powell?
Adam Clayton Powell is not considered a pastor, he is considered a politician. He is considered, in fact, one more victim. People who can’t stand Adam would never, never, never attacked him now. Crimes which Adam is accused of—first of all, the people in Harlem know a great deal more about that than anybody who has written about it. That’s one thing. And for another, as long as you don’t impeach Senator Eastland, it’s a bullshit tip and we know it. We’re not fighting for him, we’re fighting for us.
James Baldwin with Bayard Rustin at the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery
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What about some of the other leaders of the black community?
The real leaders now in the black community you’ve never heard of. Roy’s not a leader, Whitney’s not a leader.
Floyd’s not a leader either, but Floyd is closer to the tempo, to the pulse. First of all, leaders are rare. A man is not made a leader by the mass media of this country. A man is not made a leader in spite of all the opposition he got, even from black people. Because that’s what he was. And because he loved his people. He loved this country.
Stokely in my view is perhaps a little too young. Look, I’m nearly twenty years older than Stokely. I can’t answer that question. Stokely is a leader for a great many people. Stokely is even more than that, Stokely is a symbol for a great many people. A great many emasculated black boys turn to Stokely because he’s fighting against their emasculation. I understand that, and they’re right. I may have my own disagreements with Stokely from time to time but I’m on his side. What Stokely is saying essentially is true and that is why people are so uptight about Stokely. Because they can’t deny what he is saying. And what he is trying to do is anathema to the white people of the United States because what he is saying is that we have no hope here. These white people are never going to do anything for use because they cannot. Also, as long as we are on the subject of Stokely, let me point out to you that Stokely has never said he hated white people. And I happen to know him and I know he doesn’t. What he is insisting on is black autonomy and that puts everybody uptight. That’s all he is saying. What he is suggesting that frightens the American white people is that the Black people in this country are tied to subjugated people everywhere in the world.
Furthermore, he is saying very clearly, and it’s true, that this country, which began as a revolutionary nation has now spent god knows how many billions of dollars and how many thousands of lives fighting revolution everywhere else. And what he’s saying is that black people in this country should not any longer turn to President Lyndon Johnson, who I after all at the very best (and this is an understatement; I’m speaking for myself now) a very untrustworthy big daddy. But to other black people, all the other people who are suffering under the same system that we are suffering from, that system is led by the last of the Western nations. It is perfectly conceivable, or would be if there were not so many black people here, that the Americans decide to “liberate” South Africa. Isn’t it? That is to say to keep the horrors of communism away, all the freedom fighters in South Africa would turn South Africa into another Vietnam. No one is fooled about what you are doing in Vietnam. At least no black cat is fooled by it. You are not fighting for what the Western world calls material self-interest. And that means my back. My stolen tin, my stolen diamonds, my stolen sugar. That’s what it means; it means I should work for you forever.
And I won’t.
But the idea is that people who are divided by so many miles of the globe, and by so many other things, should begin consider that they have something in common—this is what Stokely says. What they have in common—this what Stokely says. What they have in common is to get the man off their backs. It’s a very dangerous and frightening idea for Americans, because it happens to be true.
Do you feel that there’s a conscious understanding of American imperialism by…
The Americans are not imperialists. According to them, they’re just nice guys. They’re just folks.
But we are talking about a form of imperialism…
We’re talking about the very last form of imperialism, you know—Western imperialism anyway— the world is going to see.
But do you feel the under class of black people, given an insufficient education, understands the specifies of this imperialism you describe?
We understand very much better than you think we do, and we understand it from letter we get from Vietnam.
Is there any white man who can…
White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice.
Then black is a state of mind, too?
No, black is a condition.
Who among the white community can talk to the black community and be accepted?
Anybody, who doesn’t think of himself as white.
White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice
Among the Presidential candidates, whom do you feel would be accepted as speaking in good faith? Richard Nixon?
You must be joking.
Maybe, that would depend very much on what he does now. I don’t put him down.
What about Robert Kennedy?
What about Robert Kennedy indeed! Bobby’s a very, very, very bright man. The best thing said about Bobby Kennedy, and I’m not trying to cop out on this, was said by Al Calloway in that rather curious issue about Soul that Esquire just did. Al said that if Soul could be studied and learned, he’d learn it. He’d study and learn, but it can’t be studied and learned. I’ve had one very publicized thing with Bobby so that anything I say is suspect. He’s very bright, and all the liberals will be on his bandwagon. He will probably be President. Almost surely he will be. And what can I say? I have to leave it open. I, myself, will not be on that bandwagon. I think he’s very shrewd but I think he’s absolutely col. I think he may prove to be, well, very dangerous.
He’s very attractive. He says all of the right things, you know, not always at the right time. And I can see the kind of appeal he’d have; after all, he is the brother of J.F.K. But I’m in another position. I have to be as clearheaded as I can be about it and look beyond the particular event or the particular man. I could not myself put my life in his hands.
Do you know of Eugene McCarthy?
Nothing at all. I can’t discuss him. But I ought to say that it’s been a very long time since I’ve had any respect for any politician. I have to say, too, that I’m looking through the political spectrum from the standpoint of my rather bitter forty-three years in this country. What I’m also saying is that if I endorse anybody, no matter what it means, I don’t want to tell black people to vote for so-and-so or him or her because I don’t want to be killed by those black people when they discover they’ve been betrayed.
Do you care to expand on that?
No, just forget it. I point to his record since he became Vice-President. The flaming liberal.
Do you think the riots can be considered in another light than simply an outburst against the system? Are they possibly also, consciously or unconsciously, a struggle to bring to a culture purification by blood?
Well, that refers back to Thomas Jefferson, I think, who said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
He also said that the tree of liberty should be watered with blood…
The blood of tyrants. We call it riots, because they were black people. We wouldn’t call it riots if they were white people.
What does the death of Martin Luther King signify?
The abyss over which this country hovers now. It’s a very complicated question and the answer has to be very complicated question and the answer has to be very complicated, too. What it means to the ghetto, what it means to the black people of this country, is that you could kill Martin, who was trying to save you, and you will face tremendous opposition from black people because you choose to consider, you know, the use of violence. If you can shoot Martin, you can shoot all of us. And there’s nothing in your record to indicate you won’t, or anything that would prevent you from doing it. That will be the beginning of the end, if you do, and that knowledge will be all that will hold your hand. Because one no longer believes, you see—I don’t any longer believe, and not many black people in this country can afford to believe— any longer a word you say. I don’t believe in the morality of this people at all. I don’t believe you do the right thing because you think it’s the right thing. I think you may be forced to do it because it will be the expedient thing. Which is good enough
I don’t think that the death of Martin Luther King means very much to any of those people in Washington. I don’t think they understand what happened at all. People like Governor Wallace and Mister Maddox certainly don’t. I would doubt very much if Ronald Reagan does. And that is of course where the problem lies, with the institutions we mentioned earlier. But to the black people in this country it means that you have declared war. You have declared war. That you do intend to slaughter us, that you intend to put us in concentration camps. After all, Martin’s assassination–whether it was done by one man or by a State Trooper, which is a possibility; or whether it was a conspiracy, which is also a possibility; after all I’m a fairly famous man, too, and one doesn’t travel around—Martin certainly didn’t without the government being aware of every move he made— for this assassination I accuse the American people and all its representatives.
Every time, including the time the President was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman; no one can face the fact that this madness has been created deliberately.
For me, it’s been Medgar. Then Malcolm. Then Martin. And it’s same story. When Medgar was shot they arrested some lunatic in Mississippi, but I was in Mississippi, with Medgar, and you don’t need a lunatic in Mississippi to shoot a cat like Medgar Evers, you now, and the cat whoever he was, Byron de la Beckwith, slipped out of the back door of a nursing home and no one’s ever heard from him since. I won’t even discuss what happened to Malcolm, or all the ramifications of that. And now Martin’s dead. And every time, you know, including the time the President was murdered, everyone insisted it was the work of one lone madman; no one can face the fact that this madness has been created deliberately. Now Stokely will be shot presently. And whoever pulls that trigger will not have bought the bullet. It is the people and their representatives who are inciting to riot, not Stokely, not Martin, not Malcolm, not Medgar. And you will go on like this until you will find yourself in a place from which you can’t turn back, where indeed you may be already. So, if Martin’s death has reached the conscience of a nation, well then it’s a great moral triumph in the history of mankind, but it’s very unlikely that it has.
Some people have said that the instant canonization by white America is the cop-out…
It’s the proof of their guilt, and the proof of their relief. What they don’t know is that for every Martin they shoot there will be ten others. You already miss Malcolm and wish he were here. Because Malcolm was the only person who could help those kids in the ghetto. The only person.
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I was just about to say, we white people…
…wished that Malcolm were here? But you, the white people, no matter how it was done actually, technically, you created the climate which forced him to die.
We have created a climate which has made political assassination acceptable…
…which made inevitable that death, and Medgar’s and Martin’s. And may make other deaths inevitable, too—including mine. And all this in the name of freedom.
Do you think “cooling it” means accepting a culture within a culture, a black culture as separate?
You mean, white people cooling it?
White people cooling it means a very simple thing. Black power frightens them. White power doesn’t frighten them. Stokely is not, you know, bombing a country out of existence. Nor menacing your children. White power is doing that. White people have to accept their history and their actual circumstances, and they won’t. Not without a miracle they won’t. Goodwill won’t do it. One’s got to face the fact that we police the globe–we, the Americans, police the globe for a very good reason. We, like the South African black miners, know exactly what they’re protecting when you talk about the free world.
Black power frightens white people. White power doesn’t.
Are there some viable black institutions that…
Why does a white country look to black institutions to save it?
Well, to begin a dialogue, to find out what should be done…
That is up to you.
But doesn’t white America need instruction from…
…the streets of any ghetto.
But on the streets of any ghetto can you learn…
Ask any black junkie what turned him into a junkie.
But what I’m after are programs that you can work with.
What you mean by programs is a way of alleviating the distress without having it cost you anything.
Well, even, if we’re willing to spend the money…
I’m not talking about money.
But if we are willing to change our point of view…
Well, then, the person to talk to is first of all your own heart, your wife, your child. It’s your country, too. I’ve read a great deal about the good white people of this country since I came back to it in 1957. But it’s the good white people of this country who forced the black people into the streets.
I’ve read a great deal about the good white people of this country. But it’s the good white people of this country who forced the black people into the streets.
Do you think it counts for anything having a mayor like John Lindsay walking the streets?
I like John Lindsay. Just because he walks the street, perhaps. Or for the same reasons I like J.F.K., you know, with enormous reservations. He’s somewhere near the twentieth century at least.
What kind of President should we have? Would a black President help?
You’re going to need somebody who is willing, first of all to break the stranglehold of what they call the two-party system. John Lewis was right on the day of the March on Washington, when he said we can’t join the Republican Party— look who that is made up of. We can’t join the Democratic Party—look who’s in that party. Where’s our party? What we need is somebody who can coalesce the energies in this country, which are now both black and white, into another party which can respond to the needs of the people. The Democratic Party cannot do it. Not as long as Senator Eastland is in it. I name him, to name but one. I certainly will never vote for a Republican as long as Nixon is in that party. You need someone who believes in this country, again, to begin to change it. And by the way, while we’re on this subject, on of the things we should do is cease protecting all those Texas oil millionaires who are one of the greatest menaces any civilization has ever seen. They have absolutely no brains, and a fantastic amount of money, fantastic amount of power, incredible power. And there’s nothing more dangerous than that kind of power in the hands of such ignorant men. And this is done with consent of the federal government.
Are there any natural allies for the black people?
We’re all under the same heel. I told you that before. We are all under the same heel. That’s why everyone was so shocked when Fidel Castro went to Harlem. They think Negroes are fools, as Langston Hughes put it once. Second-class fools as that.
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You feel that any people who are oppressed outside the United States are natural allies for the black Americans
Yes, From Cuba… to Angola. And don’t think the American government doesn’t know that. This government which is trying to free us is also determined we should never talk to each other.
In The Fire Next Time, you questioned whether the black people want to be integrated into a burning house. Do you still feel they do not have the same goals of materialism as the white man?
I think Stokely’s right when he says that integration is another word, you know, the latest kind of euphemism for white supremacy. No, I don’t want to be integrated into this house or any other house, especially not this burning house. I don’t want to be become… like you. You, the white people. I’d rather die than become what most white people in this country have become. What one is after is something else, which is exactly what Martin was after, and this community. You know, I just want you to leave me alone. Just l-e-a-v-e-m-e-a-l-o-n-e! And then we can take it from there. And above all, leave my child alone.
Do you think that the local community control of schools is necessary?
Schools and policemen.
Look, we live in Harlem, let’s say, or we live in Watts. The mother who comes down there with his cap and his own gun in his holster, he doesn’t know what my day is like. He doesn’t know why I get drunk when I do. He doesn’t know anything about me at all. He’s scared shitless of me. Now, what the fuck is he doing there? All he can do id shoot me. He’s a hired concentration-camp keeper. I can police my own community far better than you ever will. Because you can’t. It’s not in you to do it. I know why somebody there is upset when he is upset. The cats were right when they were told by somebody, some cop, some leader, some mayor to go home. They said you go home—we are home, baby. We can take care of ourselves. This is the message we’re trying to get across; we don’t need you to take care of us. Good Lord, we can’t afford to have you take care of us any longer! Look what you’ve done. To us. And to yourselves in taking care of us. No. I think the black people in this country should run their own schools, and run their own police force. Because you can’t do it. All you can do I bring in tanks and tear gas—and call the National Guard when it gets too tight. And think you can fight a civil war and a global war at the same time.
We don’t need you to take care of us. Good Lord, we can’t afford to have you take care of us any longer!
There used to be a New York City regulation that a policeman couldn’t reside in the precinct to which he was assigned. You are saying that the regulation should require him to live there.
Yeah, I’m telling you that.
Do you have any hope for the future of this country?
I have a vast amount of determination. I have a great deal of hope. I think the most hopeful thing to do is to look at the situation. People accuse me of being a doom-monger. I’m not a doom-monger. If you don’t look at it, you can’t change it. You’ve got to look at it. And at certain times it cannot be more grim. If we don’t look at it, we won’t. If we don’t change it, we’re going to die. We’re going to perish, every single one of is. That’s a tall order, a hard, hard bill to pay; but you have been accumulating it for a very long time. And now the bill is in. It is in for you and your children, and it is in all over the world. If you can’t pay your bill. There’s nothing more that you can do to me, nothing more at all. When you, in the person of your President, assure me that you will not tolerate any more violence, you may think that frightens me. People don’t get frightened when they heard that, they get mad. And whereas you’re afraid to die, I’m not.
So the one thing that is fairly certain about cooling it is that the National Guard…
I am not the one to be cooled.
But it can be said that the National Guard, the police, tear gas, these methods are not the answer.
I suggest that the mayor of every city and the President of this nation go on the air and address the white people for a change. Tell them to cool it.
In the most recent disturbances, why have certain black leaders attempted to get other black people off the streets?
To save their lives. Not as a favor to you. Nobody wants this generation to die. Except the American people.
You would say, then, that we have a lot to answer for?
I’m not trying to accuse you, you know. That’s not the point. But you have an awful lot to face. I don’t envy any white man in this century, because I wouldn’t like to have to face what you have to fade. If you don’t face it, though it’s a matter of your life or death. Everyone’s deluded if they think it’s a matter of Sambo’s life or death. It isn’t a matter of Sambo’s life or death, and it can’t be, for they have been slaughtering Sambos too long. It’s a matter of whether or not you want to live. And you may think that my death or diminution, or my disappearance will save you, but it won’t. It can’t save you. All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history…which is not your past, but your present. Nobody cares what happened in the past. One can’t afford to care what happened in the past. But your history has led you to this moment, and you can only begin to change yourself by looking at what you are doing in the name of your history, in the name of your gods, in the name of your language. And what has happened is as though I, having always been outside it —more outside it than victimized by it, but mainly outside it—can see it better than you can see it. Because I cannot afford to let you fool me. If I let you fool me, then I die. But I’ve fooled you for a long time. That’s why you keep saying, what does the Negro want? It’s a summation of your own delusions, the lies you’ve told yourself. You know exactly what I want!
All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history—which is not your past, but your present.
So that when we come to you with the question, How do we cool it? All we’re asking is that same old question, What does the Negro want?
Yes. You’re asking me to help you save it.
Yes. But you have to do that.
Speaking strictly, from your point of view, how would you talk to an angry black man ready to tear up the town?
I only know angry black men. You mean, how would I talk to someone twenty years younger than I?
That would be very difficult to do. I’ve tried, and I try it, and I try it all the time. All I can tell him, really, is I’m with you, whatever that means. I’ll tell you what I can’t tell him. I can’t tell him to submit and let himself be slaughtered. I can’t tell him that he should not arm, because the white people are armed. I can’t tell him that he should not let anybody rape his sister, or his wife, or his mother. Because that’s where it’s at. And what I try to tell him, too, is if you’re ready to blow the cat’s head off—because it could come to that—try not to hate him, for the sake of your soul’s salvation and for no other reason. But let’s try to be better, let’s try—no matter what it costs us— to be better than they are. You haven’t got to hate them, though we do have to be free. It’s a waste of time to hate them.
This interview originally appeared in the July 1968 issue of Esquire Magazine. Read every Esquire story ever published on Esquire Classic.