July marks the 55th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex, and helped to dismantle de jure segregation. History books often simplify the passage of this bill into a discernible moment of completion during the Civil Rights Movement. However, the ensuing decades have demonstrated that the law has neither purged the country of racism or the vestiges of racial segregation.
In a speech delivered the day he signed the Act, President Lyndon B. Johnson sensed that a single law would not eliminate the oppression and racist thinking that permeated America. He hinted at a longer struggle by noting that freedom could “be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”
Fifty-five years later, what can be done to “renew and enlarge” the meaning of the Civil Rights Act?
For insight, we turn to writer and social commentator James Baldwin. Three years of discussing Baldwin with community groups has shown me that honest conversations about race, history, and American life can help us, as Johnson hoped when he signed the Civil Rights Act, “understand — without rancor or hatred — how all this happened.”
Much like the time in which Baldwin wrote, we are living through a period of deep political division and social crisis framed by global discord.
Racism rears its head every day in headlines that tell of police brutality, churches burning, the growth of prisons, poverty, and unequal access to education. Lacking ethical, political leadership, some people are looking to intellectuals of the past, like Baldwin, to better understand our present. Recently, there has been a striking resurgence of interest in Baldwin’s life and writings illustrated by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the feature film If Beale Street Could Talk.
Captivated by this interest in Baldwin, I wanted to explore how audiences were engaging with the writer at this moment in American history. With grants from Humanities New York and New Jersey’s Public Scholars Program, I have led more than 20 public conversations about Baldwin’s writing with artist Grant Cooper. Our sessions introduce excerpts from Baldwin’s writing that focus on themes such as the past, trust, and love through a curriculum that highlights listening to Baldwin, to oneself, and to each other. There are lessons from the Baldwin discussions to which I often return: having the courage to honestly acknowledge the past, knowing and trusting yourself enough to aid in positive transformation, recognizing the power of anger as well as the deep need for love, and caring for yourself.
One clear message from these conversations is that there is a desire for acknowledgment of how oppressed people have shouldered racism’s pain throughout America’s history.
For a fuller understanding and robust resolution, we must formally recognize the long-term consequences of racial discrimination — from enslavement and segregation, to wealth disparity and present-day institutionalized racism. A candid exploration of the past can be arduous and disturbing to confront. Baldwin wrote in “A Letter to My Nephew” (1962) that most white people in America “are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” This means that the promises of the Civil Rights Act cannot be fulfilled until we truthfully face and begin to reconcile our collective past.
It is challenging to begin a process of self and collective examination that frankly acknowledges the past. Yet, our discussions demonstrated that many people want to participate in such an effort. In response, we advised people to use their talents to advance positive transformation.
Discussants frequently pointed out that probing history honestly and making a positive contribution are endeavors that could take a lifetime.
This work also brings up many emotions, including anger. Baldwin’s forthrightness is sometimes characterized as anger. For example, he observed in The Fire Next Time (1963) that “the intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make vengeance inevitable.” Anger is a force that can fuel protest and bring about change, yet love can be equally powerful while fomenting less destruction. Baldwin’s writing recognizes anger and vengeance, and also calls for love in the process of transformation.
In “A Letter to My Nephew,” he urged his namesake that “we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” I will not soon forget the participant who said that this work of positive transformation through love is a lot to ask of people, especially those who are oppressed. He emphasized, “We must not forget to take care of ourselves.” Every person needs spiritual and physical replenishment at times. This discussion underscored the most basic, yet often overlooked, lesson of love: love yourself.
In reflecting on the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, I am tempted to lament the lack of progress. Johnson said when he signed the law that its purpose was not to divide “but to end divisions.” The nation remains deeply, perhaps dangerously, divided today. Yet, Johnson also said it would take effort “to bring justice and hope to all our people.” Within such an effort, there is space to hope. Baldwin once said, “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive.”
His call at the close of “Letter from a Region in My Mind” (1962) can encourage us today: “if we. . . do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare. . . and change the history of the world.” There is indeed much to be done to renew and enlarge the meaning of the Civil Rights Act. Discussing James Baldwin has shown me that there are conscious people, even more than a handful, who care about transforming this country for the better.
About the Author
Lindsey R. Swindall teaches history at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She has written numerous books and articles including The Politics of Paul Robeson’s Othello, Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art, and The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955. She has dramatized her Robeson biography with actor Grant Cooper and also co-facilitates community discussions about race and US history through the New Jersey Council for the Humanities Public Scholars Project.