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History lessons

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s seminal book on Sixties race relations, is being republished alongside images by renowned civil rights-era photographer Steve Schapiro. Chantal Da Silva finds it as relevant as ever

‘At one point it rained, and suddenly the whole march was wrapped in plastic,’ Steve Schapiro says of the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery March in 1965
(Pictures by Steve Schapiro)


When James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was first published in 1963, it sent ripples throughout America as one of the most passionate and raw explorations of race relations of its time. Now, more than 50 years later, the book carries fresh relevance, as the United States and much of the Western world continues to struggle with the issue of racial inequality.

Perhaps that’s why publisher Taschen has decided to release a new edition featuring stunning historical images captured by civil rights-era photographer Steve Schapiro. Baldwin and Schapiro travelled the American South together for Life magazine in the Sixties – an experience that thrust Schapiro into the centre of the human rights movement and inspired him to dedicate much of his career to activism.

Ralph Abernathy (rear) and Dr Martin Luther King Jr lead the way on the road to Montgomery. The American flag became a symbol for a movement that called on the nation to live up to its own principles

The photographer, whose work has graced the covers of Vanity Fair, Time, Life and People magazine, documented landmark events from the March on Washington in August 1963, to the Selma to Montgomery marches two years later. Now, 100 of his images will be featured alongside Baldwin’s prose.

Schapiro’s first stop in Memphis after Dr King was killed on 4 April 1968 was the rooming house from which the shots were fired

The revival of a book still widely regarded as one of the most influential texts about race relations during the Civil Rights era comes at a time when, according to Gallup, Americans’ concerns over race relations in the US are at an all-time high. Following the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the far-right movement, a March 2017 Gallup survey showed that as many as 42 per cent of Americans say they “worry a great deal” about race relations in the US, compared with 17 per cent in 2014.

A new documentary by Haitian director Raoul Peck titled I Am Not Your Negro also brings Baldwin’s work back into focus, exploring the author’s unfinished project – a book profiling the lives and murders of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers – as well as his relationship with the Civil Rights movement.

The Fire Next Time consists of two essays, which both examine racism faced by black people in America in the 1960s. The first, “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”, is a letter to the writer’s 14-year-old nephew, describing the role that race plays in America’s history. The essay, “Down at the Cross – Letters from a Region of My Mind”, tackles the relationship between race and religions, with a focus on Baldwin’s own experience with the Christian church. The new edition, which is limited to only 1,963 copies, will also include Schapiro’s own stories from the field, with a new introduction by civil rights leader and US Congressman John Lewis.

A long walk to freedom: thousands crossed this bridge with King, but not all walked the 54 miles to Montgomery
Protesters sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in Oxford, Ohio, before boarding a bus in June 1964. They were warned about the dangers they might face in Mississippi, including getting beaten, arrested and in some cases, killed
As many as 250,000 people converged on the nation’s capital in the 1963 March on Washington, including baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth
James Baldwin first went to the South in 1957 to connect with the civil rights movement. He visited homes there, where he found an abandoned boy being looked after by neighbours
Standing strong: Those who marched at the front with King on the way to Montgomery, including Reverend Ralph Abernathy, James Forman and Reverend Jesse Douglas, all wore dark suits similar to his so he wouldn’t stand out, as death threats poured in daily

The Fire Next Time is published by Taschen and is available now

Read Geoffrey Macnab’s review of the film ‘I Am Not A Negro’ in today’s Radar section