Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin’s Complicated Relationship

Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin were two of the most important writers, thinkers and rebels of the 1950s and ‘60s, and they are now rightly regarded as civil rights icons, the recipients of adulation they rarely received during their own lives.

Because history has a way of simplifying heroes’ journeys and smoothing over the rough edges, the full stories of civil rights leaders are rarely told. In reality, different leaders had different approaches and sometimes, core convictions, as was the case with King and Baldwin. There was mutual admiration between the two but there was also fundamental frictions, which was largely documented in Baldwin’s writings and interviews.

Baldwin was in awe when he first saw King deliver a sermon

Baldwin first met King in 1957, during the Atlanta stop of his tour of the Deep South. It was a year after the successful completion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate public transportation, at least theoretically.

Baldwin saw King deliver a sermon and was awed by not only his oratory abilities but the conviction behind them. In King he saw a remarkable leader who was able to withstand white aggression and inspire belief in both his parishioners and the larger Black community. In 1960, Harper’s magazine asked Baldwin to write a profile of King, and before doing so, he wrote to him to request a meeting.

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