James Baldwin’s Voice and Views

Author and civil rights activist James Baldwin was born 92 years ago today.  His life ended, but his voice and views live on.  The 1989 Karen Thorsen documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, offers a poignant personal portrait of the life, times and brilliant voice of Baldwin from his Harlem home to his global retreats. Intermixing archival footage, excerpts from  major Baldwin books, and commentary from the writer and other writers of his time, the film celebrates the social critic who challenged America on racial justice, sexuality and religious issues.

Almost three decades after Baldwin’s death, in an America fueled by racial and immigration tensions and raging election rhetoric, the time is right to revisit Baldwin’s legacy and his relevancy today. The Price of the Ticket is a good starting point. 

 

Forgotten Memorial Day Story

1865 Charleston Daily News

When or where the day memorializing those who served in the military began in the United States is unknown. According to many, it was initially known as Decoration Day, following the Civil War, when General John J. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared it as a time to remember the war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. In 1966, Congress and President Johnson claimed Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The following year, it was made a national holiday observed on May 30 until 1971 when Congress assigned the last Monday in May as the day of observance.

We will never really know the true birthplace of Memorial Day because history is often a mix of told and untold stories. Some histories of Decoration Day are hidden or ignored by times, circumstances and denial. As change occurs and America evolves, those overlooked histories slowly emerge. Here is one reemerging history of Decoration Day.

According to newspaper articles and historian David Blight in his book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Caroline, where the Civil War began, the first Decoration Day took place. The city was in ruin and the 21st United States Colored Infantry were among the first Union soldiers to accept the city’s official surrender. After the siege, a group of former slaves gathered at a former racetrack used by Confederates as a prison where more than 250 Union soldiers died and were buried in a mass grave. The freedmen dug up the unmarked grave, put each soldier in separate graves, cleaned the area, built a fence around it, and erected an archway over the entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” They created a fitting gravesite. They also held a parade with 10,000 people–mostly blacks, white missionaries, teachers, 3,000 children and Union troops–marching around the Planters’ Race Course carrying flowers and singing. Gathered at the graveyard, black preachers delivered scriptures. For the former slaves, the purpose of that day in Charleston was to honor and celebrate the Union Army soldiers who died to end slavery and deliver freedom. “A procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before,” is how the event was described by a reporter from the New York Tribune who witnessed it.

Amid ruin, flowers can bloom. Today, the country is united in commemorating all soldiers equally who sacrifice and die so everyone can live free.

The Do Somethings, The Children Marched

Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 M...

Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being hit by a high-pressure water hose being used to disperse people during a civil rights protest. See Birmingham campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifty years ago today in America, thousands of African-American elementary and high school children left classrooms, went to 16th Street Baptist Church, gathered at Ingram Kelly Park, forgot fear, faced fire hoses, and met the dogs and demons of hatred on their fight for freedom.  Starting on May 2, 1963, the Children’s March moved civil rights from being Birmingham, Alabama’s little secret to gaining worldwide attention.

Children embraced a challenge. They went to jail for a cause. They raised the level of awareness about the awful state of trying to let freedom ring in Alabama.  They changed segregation’s course.

Children made a difference in civil rights fifty years ago.  That difference inspires today’s broader human rights movement.  Children did something.  What are you doing?

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden) in Birmingha...

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden) in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being attacked by police dogs during a civil rights protest. See Birmingham campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learn More

There are several great resources to learn more about the Children’s March.  A good start is a tool produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center used to teach tolerance, “Mighty Times: The Children’s March.”  The 2005 Academy Award-winning film documents the story of the 1963 march.