James Baldwin on Martin Luther King Jr.

Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Perhaps even more than the death itself, the manner of his death has forced me into a judgement concerning human life and human beings which I have always been reluctant to make … [A]las, most people are not, in action, worth very much;and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become. This is not very different from the act of faith demanded by all those marches and petitions while Martin was still alive. One could scarcely be deluded by Americans anymore,one scarcely dared expect anything from the great, vast, blank generality; and yet one was compelled to demand of Americans– and for their sakes, after all–a generosity, a clarity, and a nobility which they did not dream of demanding of themselves. Part of the error was irreducible, in that the marchers and petitioners were forced to suppose the existence of an entity which, when the chips were down, could not be located– i.e., there are no American people yet; but to this speculation (or desperate hope) we shall presently return. Perhaps, however, the moral of the story (and the hope of the world) lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. However that may be, the failure and the betrayal are in the record book forever, and sum up, and condemn, forever, those descendents of a barbarous Europe who arbitrarily and arrogantly reserve the right to call themselves Americans.

— From No Name in the Street

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