In 1957, the year “Sonny’s Blues” was published, James Baldwin returned from Europe to America, driven by a profound sense of duty to participate in the revolutionary African American Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin traveled throughout the American South on assignment with various publications, proving an eloquent witness to the systemic racial violence and oppression then rampant in the United States. His essays helped articulate the experiences and thoughts of an entire generation of activists and citizens. Though “Sonny’s Blues” treats the issues of racism and segregation less explicitly than many of Baldwin’s other works, the effects of the budding Civil Rights Movement and Baldwin’s extensive participation in that movement can be seen throughout the short story.
Though the African American Civil Rights Movement has its roots in the preceding decades, most scholars date the movement from the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which mandated the desegregation of American schools.
The decision helped initiate a wave of civil disobedience. Little more than a year later, in December of 1955, Rosa Parks famously refused to give her seat on a public bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of personal bravery led 50,000 fellow African Americans to boycott the city’s busses. Soon afterwards in 1960, four students in Greensboro, South Carolina organized a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, where they had been denied service, sparking similar protests throughout the South. In 1961 joint groups of African Americans and white allies organized ‘Freedom Rides’, protesting the segregation of public transportation.
Throughout this period the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a spokesperson and leader of the movement. Inspired by both Gandhi’s successes in India and Christian principles, King advocated non-violent resistance, giving the Civil Rights Movement the moral high ground and inspiring sympathy throughout the world. Despite his commitment to non-violence, King was arrested 13 times throughout the period. One of these arrests, in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, occurred after peaceful protests were brutally suppressed by a racist police force. From jail King wrote one of his most moving pieces on racism and segregation: Letter From Birmingham Jail. Several months later King would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the most famous speeches in American history, during the March on Washington.
African American activism eventually resulted in the passage of two important pieces of legislation by the Johnson administration. The first, passed in 1964, was the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation and racial discrimination. The second, passed only a year later in 1965, was the Voting Rights Act, which struck down laws designed to prevent minority citizens from exercising their right to vote.
Though the quest for equality was far from over, the African American Civil Rights Movement ended in 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King. The movement achieved many important victories, securing civil rights not only for African Americans, but also for other marginalized minority groups. Yet Dr. King’s vision of ending poverty, injustice and inequality is far from realized. James Baldwin continued to tirelessly advocate for these principles in his writing and his life until his death in 1987.