In Esquire‘s July 1968 issue, published just after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the magazine talked to James Baldwin about the state of race relations in the country. On what would be the author’s 93rd birthday, we’ve republished the interview in full—and his words are incredibly relevant today.
ESQ: How can we get the black people to cool it?
JAMES BALDWIN: It is not for us to cool it.
ESQ: But aren’t you the ones who are getting hurt the most?
JAMES BALDWIN: No, we are only the ones who are dying fastest.
Can we still cool it?
That depends on a great many factors. It’s a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they’re in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don’t know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders.It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. I think the President goofed by not telling the nation what the civil-disorders report was all about. And I accuse him and the entire administration, in fact, of being largely responsible for this tremendous waste and damage. It was up to him and the Vice-President to interpret that report and tell the American people what it meant and what the American people should now begin to think of it. Now!It is already, very very late even to begin to think of it. What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future. And when the summer comes, both fathers and sons are in the streets- they can’t stay in the houses. I was born in those houses and I know. And it’s not their fault.