Take This Hammer with James Baldwin

Christina Knight | February 7, 2018
Still from Take This Hammer (1963), featuring James Baldwin.

James Baldwin looks out of car window in San Francisco in the documentary Take This Hammer (1963).

James Baldwin was an intellectual, an author, and a talented cultural critic. Though his medium was a typewriter and paper, his honest and sharp messages on race in America were as hard-hitting as if they had been delivered with a hammer.

The Oscar-nominated documentary I am Not Your Negro (2016) is well known to those interested in Baldwin’s work and public appearances that challenged white America to address inequalities. Take This Hammer (1963), a public television documentary that predates PBS, is less known, but it was filmed at the height of Baldwin’s renown as a writer and civil rights advocate.

Take This Hammer follows Baldwin’s listening tour in San Francisco in 1963, the purpose of which was to expose the liberal city as a place where African Americans suffered inequalities in the workplace and civic life as much as in the South.

The program premiered on public television on February 4, 1964 on Northern California’s KQED Channel 9 in the Bay Area. The station had produced the film for National Educational Television (NET) – the predecessor of WNET and THIRTEEN in New York City, Baldwin’s home town.

Here’s some key information to best understand the 1963 documentary Take This Hammer, featuring James Baldwin in San Francisco.

What Does the Title Mean?

“Take This Hammer” is a late 19th century American folk song about work, specifically within the logging industry or prisons. The song has been recorded by many artists and some versions reference the legendary African American spike driver, John Henry.

The lack of jobs and equal opportunity, as well as unwarranted stops by the police are the focus of people’s concerns in the film.

What Was James Baldwin Known for in 1963?

By 1963, Baldwin had been known for a decade as an essayist and author but he gained a much larger audience with his New Yorker double essay The Fire Next Time, which became the first essay collection to spend 41 weeks in the top five of the New York Times‘ Bestseller List. The two essays of The Fire Next Time addressed race, oppression, and the role of Christianity in America.

Also that year, Baldwin and other civil rights advocates and cultural luminaries such as playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) met with U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy on May 25, a meeting Baldwin describes in the film, I Am Not Your Negro.

On August 19, Baldwin led a civil rights demonstration in Paris, then participated in the March on Washington on August 28 and made his second trip to Africa.

Who was Orville B. Luster?

Orville B. Luster (1925 – June 27, 2005) was the man who introduced James Baldwin to African American youth and community leaders in Take This Hammer. He was executive director of Youth for Service, a San Francisco-based organization that developed the career and vocational skills of students and disadvantaged youth. Luster had taken part in the Freedom Rides in 1961 and ultimately served nearly 25 years as Youth for Service’s executive director.

South vs. North

When the documentary was filmed, Birmingham, Alabama was the center of a nonviolent protest campaign organized that year by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The southern city was deemed one of the most racially divided in the United States. Young peaceful protesters in the movement were met with the police department’s high-pressure water hoses and attack dogs.

In Take This Hammer, Baldwin asserts, “there is not distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.”

He says, “San Francisco is just another American city, and if you’re a black man, that’s a very bitter thing to say.”

San Francisco Locations

Baldwin is seen meeting with community leaders in San Francisco’s  Bayview and Western Addition neighborhoods. Bayview, also known as Hunt’s Point, was then home to a United State Navy shipyard and power plants and had a majority African-American population, many of whom had been denied housing in other areas of the city.

The film stresses the discrimination in employment black residents of San Francisco faced. “To get to the most meager opportunity, you’ve got to be five times as good as anyone else around,” says Baldwin.

Two years after Take This Hammer aired, two significant responses to racial tensions in San Francisco unfolded.

On September 27, 1966, a police officer shot and killed Matthew Johnson, a black teenager, in Hunt’s Point, which set off a three-day riot in Hunt’s Point and beyond, and a national guard occupation. (see archival film footage). The San Francisco Chronicle recounts the race riot and the turbulent history of the Hunt’s Point neighborhood.

In response to the shooting of Matthew Johnson, police violence, and the assassination of Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in nearby Oakland, CA.

Watch the Film

Watch Take This Hammer here on THIRTEEN.org or on THIRTEEN Explore for mobile and OTT, with the public television member benefit THIRTEEN Passport.

See our Black History Month collection for more programs relating to cultural icons, leaders and American history.