In 1961 Harper’s Magazine commissioned James Baldwin to write a profile of Martin Luther King. Baldwin had first met King in 1958, a little more than a year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott (which King had helped lead) had ended in a federal decree outlawing desegregation on public buses. In “The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” Baldwin, once a teenage preacher himself, offers one of the most vivid and insightful accounts of what it was like to hear the twenty-nine-year-old King:
King is a great speaker. The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.
Most preachers, Baldwin notes, offer their congregation only “the sustenance for another day’s journey.” King by contrast made everyone who heard him feel they could “change their situation.” Baldwin quotes an example:
“. . . And we’ve got to stop lying to the white man. Every time you let the white man think you think segregation is right, you are co-operating with him in doing evil.
“The next time,” he said, “the white man asks you what you think of segregation, you tell him, Mr. Charlie, I think it’s wrong and I wish you’d do something about it by nine o’clock tomorrow morning!”
This brought a wave of laughter and King smiled, too. But he had meant every word he said, and he expected his hearers to act on them. They also expected this of themselves, which is not the usual effect of a sermon; and that they are living up to their expectations no white man in Montgomery will deny.
“The Dangerous Road Before Martin Luther King” is included in the Library of America volume James Baldwin: Collected Essays.