An Open Letter to Mr. Carter
By James Baldwin
January 23, 1977
I have a thing to tell you, but with a heavy heart, for it is not a new thing.
In North Carolina, as I write, nine black men and one white woman are under sentences of a total of 282 years in various prisons on various charges, including arson. The Rev. Ben Chavis, who was 29 years old yesterday, is the best known of the Wilmington 10.
In Charlotte, three black men are on bail and facing sentences, equally savage, on charges equally preposterous.
I will not insult your intelligence by discussing the details of the cases.
It must be relatively rare to find ten people (who have never before committed any offense) who merit 282 years in prison. As for Ben Chavis, the courts have totally failed to indicate what he has done to merit 34.
James Earl Grant was arrested in the more liberal city of Charlotte, accused with two others of burning down the Lazy B riding stables in which fifteen horses died. He merited a mere 25. The other two men got a total of 30 years in the 1972 trial—the fire was in 1968.
In any event, some of the most pertinent details of the cases are to be found in major newspapers and in the Congressional Record: Messrs. John Conyers Jr., Ronald V. Dellums and Charles B. Rangel speaking.
And the mother of Ben Chavis, speaking from a church in Raleigh, N.C., has the most pertinent question, especially in light of the fact that her son is a Christian minister: “You in the Christian church, will you be diligent in keeping them from getting my son?”
And the entire horror evolved from the manner in which a Wilmington judge decided to desegregate a Wilmington high school, and the fact that the black students wished to declare the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a day of mourning.
I have said that it is not a new thing I have to tell you, and, indeed, most of it is not new for me. I might in my own mind, as I write, be speaking of the Scottsboro Boys: where I came in, so to speak.
If I know, you must certainly know of the silent pact between the North and the South, after the Reconstruction, the purpose of which was—and is—to keep the nigger in his place.
If I know, then you must certainly know, that keeping the nigger in his place was the most extraordinarily effective way of keeping the poor white in his place, and also, keeping him poor:
The situation of the Wilmington 10 and of the Charlotte 3 is a matter of Federal collusion, and would not possible without that collusion.
When those black children and white children and black men and white men and black women and white women were marching, behind Martin, up and down those dusty roads, trespassing, trespassing wherever they were, in the wrong waiting room, at the wrong coffee counter, in the wrong department store, in the wrong toilet, and were carried off to jail, they found themselves before federally appointed judges, who gave them the maximum sentence.
Some people died beneath that sentence, some went mad, some girls will never become pregnant again. Some of us, following Martin, and, however we may sometimes have disagreed with him, feeling his love, and believing I have a dream! could sometimes raise in an evening $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000—yes: which was gone in bail-bond money in the morning. And, yes, my friend, that is called collusion. The kids would die in the chain gang, and we would drop dead on the road. Or, as my friend the actress Miss Ruby Dee once put it to me, after four girls were killed in the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham Sunday School, and as we were trying to organize a protest rally—to demand, in fact—that the American people, in the light of so dreadful an event, declare Christmas a day of mourning, of atonement: “Soon, there won’t be enough black people to go around.”
I was present at the culmination of the voter-registration drive in Selma, Alabama, not so very long ago. My friend James Forman had been organizing for six months, or thereabouts; it is not easy, in such a town, where virtually every white man considers that he owns every black man. (I am speaking with the utmost restraint and will not attempt to describe the events of that day.) Nevertheless, hundreds of people came out early in the morning and lined up in front of the courthouse.
In Selma, there are two courthouses, the state courthouse and a Federal courthouse, and they face each other across a narrow street—catty-corner to these two buildings is a recruiting station Uncle Sam wants you!.
The sheriff, armed, forced us to move from one side of the street to the other—that is, to the steps of the Federal courthouse. “We” are now, among others, Representative John Conyers, my brother David, and myself. Representatives of the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are standing on the steps with us, under the American flag. (We have already seen the sheriff and his deputies beat up two black boys, and hurl them into a truck—but they were on the wrong side of the street.)
The sheriff crosses the street and demands that we leave the steps of the Federal courthouse. I ask the Justice Department or the F.B.I. if he has any right to throw us off Federal property. No, is the answer, but we can’t do anything about it.
I am watching the recruiting station. We’ll move inside because the alternative is slaughter. It is 4:30 and the whistle blows; it means the courthouse is closed. The people who have been standing there all day long, only 12 of whom have been registered, turn and walk away.
The F.B.I. wishes to know if any one of us would like to sign an affidavit. I signed my affidavit in Korea says my brother, and turns away to watch the departing people.
When we marched on Montgomery, the Confederate flag was flying from the dome of the Capitol: this gesture can be interpreted as insurrection. But when Muhammad Ali decided to be true to his faith and refused to join the Army, the wrath of an entire Republic was visited on his head, he was stripped of his title, and was not allowed to work. In short, his countrymen decided to break him, and it is not their virtue that they failed. It is his virtue.
I am not so much trying to bring to your mind the suffering of a despised people—a very comforting notion, after all, for most Americans—as the state and the fate of a nation of which you are the elected leader. The situations of the Wilmington 10, and the Charlotte 3, are very small symptoms of the monstrous and continuing wrong for which you, as the elected leader, are now responsible.
Too many of us are in jail, my friend; too many of us are starving, too many of us can find no door open. And I was in Charlotte, 20 years ago, three years after the Supreme Court made segregation in education illegal, when it was decided that separate could not, by definition, be equal. Charlotte then begged for time, and time, indeed, has passed. I was in Boston a few months ago and Boston, now, is begging for time. Across the entire question of the education of our children—all our children—is dragged the entirely false issue of busing. A child’s future does not change because he is bused into another neighborhood.
Well, I dared to write you this letter out of the concrete necessity of bringing to your attention the situations of the Wilmington 10 and the Charlotte 3. I repeat, their situation is but a very small indication of the wretched in this country: the nonwhite, the Indian, the Puerto Rican, the Mexican, the Oriental. Consider that we may all have learned, by now, all that we can learn from you and may not want to become like you. At this hour of the world’s history it may be that you, now, have something to learn from us.
I must add, in honor, that I write to you because I love our country: And you, in my lifetime, are the only president to whom I would have written.
(Source: The New York Times)
Now, there is always something in this country, of course, once can not think about⎯the Negro. This may seem like a very subtle argument, but i don’t think so. Time will prove the connection between the level of the lives we lead and the extraordinary endeavor to avoid black men. It shows in our public lives."
Conversations with James Baldwin
Excerpt from: An Interview with James Baldwin: Studs Terkel/1961 p. 15