With the violence of 1968—Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassinations, a riotous Democratic National Convention, countless civil rights protests, and so on—still very fresh in the public consciousness, James Baldwin appeared on The Dick Cavett Show on May 16, 1969, and offered his perspective on the state of race relations in America.
The segment begins with Dick Cavett citing the optimistic folks who point to the rising number of Black Americans in sports, politics, and entertainment, and asking his guest if this is a sign that things are getting better. After explaining to Cavett that the Black community isn’t—and, in fact, never has been—optimistic, Baldwin articulates that the “progress” is only progress as defined by white people of privilege.
“Insofar as the American public wants to think there has been progress, they overlook one very simple thing: I don’t want to be given anything by you. I just want you to leave me alone so I can do it myself,” he says. “And it also overlooks another very important thing: Perhaps I don’t think that this republic is the summit of human civilization. Perhaps I don’t want to become like Ronald Reagan or like the president of General Motors. Perhaps I have another sense of life… Perhaps I don’t want what you think I want.”
Cavett goes on to ask Baldwin for his opinion on the figures of the civil rights movement “who frighten us the most”—leaders like H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael—because they consider violence a necessary component of overturning systemic injustice. Baldwin responds that such ideology is only an issue when it’s coming from Black people.
“[When] any white man in the world says ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one…” Baldwin explains.
Throughout the interview, Baldwin illustrates each point with a lyrical clarity that readers will recognize from books like Giovanni’s Room and Go Tell It on the Mountain, and it’s well worth watching the full 17-minute clip below.