James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960): “On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend”

radical eyes for equity

James Baldwin published “They Can’t Turn Back” in 1960 just as I was about to enter this world.

Baldwin—black, gay and from the North—was witnessing a world from which I—white, straight and from the South—would in many ways be exempt, although it was the same world.

In this essay, Baldwin was charged by Mademoiselle to report on student activism in Florida after the Greensboro (North Carolina) sit-in, which the editors framed, in part, as follows:

More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida. to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether “We really…

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