The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and contender for the Democratic Party nomination for president, who knew [James Baldwin], called the author "a great source of inspiration" during the height of the civil rights movement. Interviewed in Chicago by the Associated Press, Jackson said Baldwin was a "prolific and sensitive writer" whose "voice was not watered down by political considerations."
Baldwin was so much a symbol of the black experience during the height of the civil rights era that Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, soon after the inauguration of his brother, sought a meeting with the writer to discuss the future of civil rights. The meeting was not a happy one, for Robert Kennedy reportedly lost patience with Baldwin and refused to regard him as representative of the blacks of America.
Baldwin was born in Harlem on Aug. 2, 1924, the eldest of a preacher's nine children. Intent on writing a novel and encouraged by his teachers in New York, Baldwin left for Paris in 1948. In Europe, he kept trying to understand "the West on to which I have been so strangely grafted." Yet, living in Europe made him somehow feel more American, especially when he discovered that young American writers were just as alienated from European culture as he was.