American Experience
Three Perspectives Three Perspectives

video | transcript

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

James Baldwin (6:31): part 1 | 2 | 3

Dr. Kenneth Clark: Do you think that this [Malcolm X's] is an appealing approach, and that the Black Muslims, in preaching black supremacy, seek to exploit the frustration of the Negro?

James Baldwin: I don't think -- to put it as simply as I can, without trying now to investigate whatever the motives of any given Muslim leader may be -- it is the only movement in the country, what you can call grass roots -- I hate to say that, but it's true, because it is only -- when Malcolm talks or one of the Muslims talks, they articulate for all the Negro people who hear them, who listen to them. They articulate their suffering, the suffering which has been in this country so long denied. That's Malcolm's great authority over any of his audiences. He corroborates their reality; he tells them that they really exist. You know?

Clark: Jim, do you think that this is a more effective appeal than the appeal of Martin Luther King?

Baldwin: It is much more sinister because it is much more effective. It is much more effective, because it is, after all, comparatively easy to invest a population with a false morale by giving them a false sense of superiority, and it will always break down in a crisis. It's the history of Europe, simply -- it's one of the reasons that we are in this terrible place. It is one of the reasons that we have five cops standing on the back of a woman's neck in Birmingham, because at some point they believed, they were taught and they believed, that they were better than other people because they were white. It leads to a moral bankruptcy. It is inevitable, it cannot but lead there.

But my point here is, that the country is for the first time worried about the Muslim movement. It shouldn't be worried about the Muslim movement. That's not the problem. The problem is to eliminate the conditions which breed the Muslim movement.

Clark: Well, I'd like to come back to -- get some of your thoughts about the relationship between Martin Luther King's appeal -- that is, effectively, non-violence, and his philosophy of disciplined love for the oppressor. What is the relationship between this and the reality of the Negro masses?

Baldwin: Well, to leave Martin out of it for a moment. Martin's a very rare, a very great man. Martin's rare for two reasons: probably just because he is, and because he's a real Christian. He really believes in non-violence. He has arrived at something in himself which permits him -- allows him to do it, and he still has great moral authority in the South. He has none whatever in the North.

Poor Martin has gone through God knows what kind of hell to awaken the American conscience, but Martin has reached the end of his rope. There are some things Martin can't do -- Martin's only one man. Martin can't solve the nation's central problem by himself. There are lots of people, lots of black people I mean, now, who don't go to church no more, and don't listen to Martin, you know, and anyway are themselves produced by a civilization which has always glorified violence -- unless the Negro had the gun. So that Martin is undercut by the performance of the country. The country is only concerned about non-violence if it seems that I'm going to get violent. It's not worried about non-violence if it's some Alabama sheriff.

Clark: Jim, what do you see deep in the recesses of your own mind as the future of our nation, and I ask that question in that way because I think that the future of the Negro and the future of the nation are linked.

Baldwin: They're indisssoluble.

Clark: What do you see? Are you essentially optimistic or pessimistic, and I really don't want to put words in your mouth, because what I really want to find out is what you really believe.

Baldwin: I'm both glad and sorry you asked me that question, but I'll do my best to answer it. I can't be a pessimist because I'm alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I'm forced to be an optimist. I'm forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives -- it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.

The question you have got to ask yourself -- the white population of this country has got to ask itself -- North and South, because it's one country, and for a Negro, there's no difference between the North and South. There's just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I'm not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you've got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it's able to ask that question.

Clark: As a Negro and as an American, I can only hope that America has the strength and the capacity --

Baldwin: And the moral strength.

Clark: -- to ask and answer that question --

Baldwin: Simply to face that question. Face that question.

Clark: -- in an affirmative and constructive way. Thank you very much.

Baldwin: Thank you, Ken.