James Baldwin Gave One of His Most Important Speeches at This Lower Manhattan Landmark

02/12/2024 in
James Baldwin Gave One of His Most Important Speeches at This Lower Manhattan Landmark

James Baldwin has a storied history in New York City, beginning with his birth at Harlem Hospital in 1924. He frequented Greenwich Village establishments like the iconic White House Tavern and the San Remo Cafe. He spent many hours at the New York City Public Library’s 135 St. Branch and occupied apartments in both the West Village and on the Upper West Side during his lifetime. One of his first plays, “Blues for Mister Charlie,” debuted at Broadway’s ANTA Playhouse, which is now known as the August Wilson Theater. And while much of Baldwin’s New York life took place north of Canal Street, he gave one of his most memorable speeches downtown.

On September 22, 1963, Baldwin spoke to crowds at Foley Square who had gathered as part of a “National Day of Mourning for the Children of Birmingham.” The gathering was in response to tragedy in Birmingham, where four Black children had been killed in a bombing carried out by the KKK and two more children had been shot and killed in racist attacks the same day. 

In his speech, Baldwin called for radical action, saying “We are here to begin to achieve the American Revolution.” 

He continued, “New York is a segregated city. It is not segregated by accident; it is not an act of God that keeps the Negroes in Harlem. It is real estate boards and the banks that do it … We’ve got to bring the cat out of hiding. And where is he? He’s hiding in the bank. We’ve got to flush him out. We have to begin a massive campaign of civil disobedience. I mean nationwide. And this is no stage joke. Some laws should not be obeyed.”

For those who wish to learn more about Baldwin’s legacy as a writer and civil rights activist in New York, on February 22, the Downtown Alliance is hosting an Alamo Drafthouse screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” an award-winning 2016 documentary crafted from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript. The screening will be followed by a talkback session featuring Professor Dagmawi Woubshet, an esteemed scholar, writer, and translator who has focused on Baldwin in his career and whose work broadly lies at the intersection of African American, LGBTQIA+ and African studies. All proceeds will be donated to Philabundance

The event is currently waitlist only but we encourage you to sign up if you’re interested in attending, as we anticipate releasing additional tickets the day before the screening. For more info, and to claim your spot, click here.

photo: courtesy Magnolia Pictures, © Dan Budnik

Tags: black history month, new york on film

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