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Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress

James Baldwin, Writer and Civil Rights Activist

December 20, 2010
by Kate Brack
James Baldwin was an American human rights activist and author, that was best known for his social commentary on race and sexuality in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Brief Biography of James Baldwin

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Baldwin was born in Harlem, N.Y., on Aug. 2, 1924. He was the oldest of nine children and grew up in an impoverished household with a rigid, religious father. During the remainder of his teenage years, he followed after his father and became a preacher for a brief stint.

In 1948, Baldwin immigrated to Paris in hopes of breaking away from the racial and homosexual bigotry in the United States. He believed he could truly examine his culture while living outside of it. While abroad, he published a number of books including “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room.”

Baldwin returned to the United States in the 1960s and spent much of his time traveling through the South and commenting on civil rights issues. He also spoke out against the war in Vietnam and, being a homosexual himself, on behalf of gay rights

Baldwin died of cancer in November 1987.

Biographical Resources

PBS’ “American Masters” series gives a short overview of Baldwin.

The New York Times’ obituary of Baldwin gives a detailed look at his life and work.

Baldwin’s Books and Papers

A portion of the James Baldwin Early Manuscripts and Papers collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is available online, including photographs, letters and early drafts of “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

Random House offers a list of Baldwin’s books with short summaries for the most famous books.

Analysis of Baldwin’s Work

The New York Times hosts an archive of book reviews and articles written by and about Baldwin.

The New York Public Library hosted a 1995 dialogue about Baldwin’s lesser known works.

C-Span’s “American Writers” held a 2002 discussion of Baldwin’s writing on racism and the civil rights movement.

Audio & Video of Baldwin

San Francisco State University hosts a copy of “Take This Hammer,” a 1963 documentary film by KQED that followed Baldwin as he meets with San Francisco’s African-American community and examines the status of blacks in the city. “There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham,” he says.

The UC Berkeley Library
holds audio files of Baldwin lectures and interviews, and video of a debate with William F. Buckley.

American Public Media
has a radio interview given by Baldwin and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1963 in the wake of a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four children.
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