James Baldwin and Freedom Summer

We’re wrapping up Black History Month with a post from Adam Berenbak, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives.

Novelist, essayist, poet, and activist James Baldwin (1924–87) “created works of literary beauty and depth that will remain essential parts of the American canon.”[1] He was an openly gay, Black man living in the Civil Rights era and, in the words of poet and author Amiri Baraka, “he reported, criticized, made beautiful, analyzed, cajoled, lyricized, attacked, sang, made us think, made us better, made us consciously human.”  

James Baldwin and Marlon Brando at the March on Washington, 8/28/1963. (National Archives Identifier 542060)

In 1964, Baldwin sought to raise both consciousness and needed funds for the Freedom Summer project seeking to register African American Voters in Mississippi. Organized by a coalition of the civil rights organizations SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the Freedom Summer project brought together local and out-of-state volunteers in Mississippi to establish schools, provide legal services, register African American voters among a myriad of services.  

The volunteers were met with resistance and, in many places violence, organized by the Ku Klux Klan and other local groups. That summer James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, activists associated with CORE working with the Freedom Summer campaign, were brutally abducted and murdered by local KKK members and Neshoba County officials.  

Baldwin sent this message, along with an enclosed addendum addressing the deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee, originally tasked with investigating communist and subversive activities, by the 1960s was targeting civil rights activists.

The letter was added to the file kept on Baldwin now housed with the committee’s records in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.  

For more information on Freedom Summer visit the National Archives website.

[1]  https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129281259

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