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What Today's Civil Rights Protesters Could Learn From Josephine Baker's Iconoclasm

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Monday, many of us will remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., by listening to his iconic speech from late August of 1963. And, pointing to slow curtailment of voting rights and to the growing list of young black men killed lately by police, we will invoke the enduring significance of the civil-rights tactics and strategies of the 1950s and 1960s, which continue to resonate in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. 

The holiday is a celebration, in a way, of the orthodoxy of pressed suits and shirts and ties, of integrationist agendas and middle-class utopias, of religious intonation and political jeremiads. This is an orthodoxy we still desperately need, but we should also remember the power of iconoclasm to bring change.

In the early 1950s, the singer and entertainer Josephine Baker toured the United States. An African-American expatriate and a citizen of France since before WWII, Baker was caught up in the early mobilizations of the civil rights movement. Long before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, and years before the critical movement marches of the 1960s, Baker was insisting on desegregated venues at her performances, picketing restaurants that denied her fair treatment, and delivering speeches about the evils of Jim Crow.

In the summer of 1951, she was lunching with a friend at Biltmore in Los Angeles when a white patron, seated nearby, growled audibly: “I won’t stay in the same room with a nigger.” Outraged, Baker called the police, who arrested the man—a travelling lingerie salesman from Texas—following her civilian complaint. She followed the car to the police station, ensured that he was taken in, and then declared to the press that the man’s racial slurs were both “undemocratic” and “un-American.” After the man had paid a $100 fine and been bailed out by his wife, Baker announced that justice had been served.

In these very early days, then, Baker used the power of her celebrity to do things that almost no other person of color dared to do without fear of violent response. The ambitions of her activism, though, should sound familiar: a request for the right to enjoy a meal at a high-end restaurant, a petition to receive legal justice, a genuflection to democracy and the American way. 

By 1953, though, Baker had completely changed her approach to civil and human rights. Returning to an ancient chateau in southern France that she’d painstakingly restored, she began adopting children of different races from around the world. She assigned them distinctive racial and ethnic identities, dressed them in stereotypical costume, and raised them as her “rainbow tribe.” She threw open the doors of her estate—named Les Milandes—and turned it into a theme park, so that all of the world could see the peaceful, integrated racial future she imagined was possible.

In the South, state and municipal governments were releasing attack dogs and turning on fire hoses. Local white citizen’s groups were firebombing churches and kidnapping and murdering civil rights activists. All this was happening while Baker’s multi-colored family was safely tucked away in France, profiled in Ebony and Jet and Life and covered in black and white newspapers from across Europe and the United States. Every press story stressed the extravagant wealth of this Disneyland-in-the-Dordogne, with its castle in the center, its massive swimming pool built in the shape of a “J” for its owner, its bathrooms decorated like an Arpège perfume bottle, its hotels, its performances, and its pageantry. 

Ideologically, Baker’s idiosyncratic project was in lockstep with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. It featured children playing together in the pool, eating and sleeping together, running and laughing in green fields, and, of course, sitting attentively and watching their mother—the superstar—perform in the little theatre on the estate grounds. This was an integrationist utopia. And yet, it was decidedly not in sync with what was happening in Nashville, Montgomery, and, ultimately, Selma. 

Lacking any sincere religious sentiment, extravagantly aristocratic, and presided over by a mixed-race couple (Baker was then married to white French bandleader Jo Bouillon), the experiment represented a radical alternative to the movement’s oft-expressed wish that it might “redeem the soul of America.” Baker’s haute couture contrasted with the Sunday church clothes on display at the picket lines and movement marches in the deep South. Her Les Milandes was Dixie turned upside down, not merely because of the absence of Jim Crow, but also because it relied on white French folks, paying admission, ogling interracialism, and generally contributing to the fame and fortune of an African-American woman.

Les Milandes was a big deal. Baker was the only woman among the main speakers at the 1963 March on Washington. “I’ve been following this movement for 30 years,” she told the New York Times, after flying all night from Paris and elbowing her way onto the program, and “now that the fruit is ripe, I want to be here.” Wearing her Free French uniform from World War II, and delivering a speech that reporter E.W. Kenworthy later described as a perfect match for King’s optimistic tone, Baker was there precisely because of the symbolism of her Rainbow Tribe. King’s “dream,” she wanted everyone to know, was already a reality in Les Milandes. A few days later, Langston Hughes nominated Josephine—not King—for the NAACP’s Spingarn Award medal. 

We are in a different moment. 

We are in the age of Michael Brown, whose body lay in the street for four hours. And the age of Eric Garner, who merely asked to breathe. We are also in the age of Oprah, once snubbed by a European store when she went to look at a $40,000 handbag, now complaining that ongoing racial protests lack “leadership.” And in the age of Jay Z, who dismissed calls for a more activist state of mind with the flip notion that his “presence is charity.” Baker’s abridgement of the vast gap between these extremes is sorely missed. She wanted the right to eat at expensive restaurants without feeling the sting of racism, or to stay in Atlanta’s very best hotel, but she also recognized that she was very well insulated from the worst of racism, and that while she was complaining about a cold dinner served too slowly amidst the rich and the beautiful, or a segregated audience cheering her latest song-and-dance number, there were also people out there living and dying, in the everyday racial scrum, living and dying and not making it into the news. 

We miss celebrity generally in today’s protests. When the big march was planned for August of 1963, considerable attention was paid to drawing famous and influential celebrities to walk alongside the masses or college students, housewives, and lawyers and doctors. Burt Lancaster and Sammy Davis, Jr., were there. So, too, were James Baldwin and Charlton Heston, Paul Newman and Jackie Robinson. Joan Baez sang “We Shall Overcome.” And so, again, was Josephine Baker, just one of many celebrities in the crowd that day, a part of the concert of superstars that took months to plan—far longer than the myriad demonstrations planned (sometimes with just a moment’s notice) across the country these days.

It is worth thinking, of course, about the usefulness of a massive, slow, carefully planned demonstration of a broad consensus, something that draws together the full, chaotic measure of the democratic crowd, including modern-day versions of Baker. Hollywood celebrities have been rather cautious about endorsing racial causes these days, though, as the lack of minority representation in the Oscar nominations shows, that political caution hasn’t translated into sustained industry success. The sartorial protests of basketball and football players—simple t-shirts and armbands—hardly count as radical here. However many stars appeared, though, a national march would only repeat what has traditionally been staged in moments of national crisis.  It might be necessary, but it would also merely confirm the old ways. 

The bigger problem here is a sort of imagination gap. There should be a place, in our memories of King’s work and in our call for action, for the full, awesome range of voices and ideas that shaped the 1950s and 1960s. We should march in Ferguson and New York City, yes, and organize voter registration drives, but there should be room for the offbeat and the downright weird, for an idea as seemingly strange—but as historically central—as that of Baker’s Rainbow Tribe. 

If Baker were alive today, we would think her bizarre. Her family would seem too strangely constructed, a version of Brangelina’s depoliticized brood. Her costumes and the ballgowns would feel too dissonant, and her estate would look too much like to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. She would be a tabloid curiosity, not an icon of civil or human rights. That says a lot more about our era than it does about Baker.