In April 1968, Martin Luther King jr was assassinated in Memphis, and we have heard a great deal recently about the half-century anniversary of that event. But here is a story of events following the murder. I stress that is according to some accounts, and other scholars may well correct legendary elements – but it is a striking tale. As the story goes, King’s widow Coretta wanted someone to replace Martin as the symbolic head of the movement he had started. There were so many distinguished men in his immediate circle, so many to choose from …. But actually, according to this account, she approached one of the great American heroes of the age, a notable figure whose courage and resourcefulness during the second world war had earned an astonishing roster of medals and decorations. A seriously tough leader for desperate times. So who was it?
The answer is Josephine Baker. So technically, a heroine rather than a hero.
Yes, that Josephine Baker. The one who created a scandalous sensation in the mid-1920s by her daring dancing and stage act, which included a memorable Charleston danced topless, with her trademark banana skirt. On an evangelical-oriented blog, I may be best advised not to offer illustrations of that. But if you saw the wonderful German noir series Babylon Berlin on Netflix, it is what the dancers are wearing in the classic nightclub number. That is a straight tribute to Josephine Baker.
So how did we get from the banana skirt to the civil rights movement? For the answer, please take a look at this photograph, from 1963. This is Baker as she was at the legendary March on Washington, long after the exotic dancing. At first, the image looks strange. Why is this placid-looking African-American woman wearing a military uniform at such an event? And what is that fruit salad of decorations on her chest? And then you look more closely. Those are medals, but not American ones. They are the highest awards that France has to offer, including the Légion d’Honneur and a Croix de Guerre, which was never passed out for trivial achievements. There is even the Rosette of the Resistance Medal. These are the marks of high devotion and bravery, records of a spectacular career, and not someone you would cross lightly.
The 1920s made Baker a global superstar, and a sex symbol. She settled in France, where she faced no racism comparable to her experience in the US, and she renounced her American citizenship. Apparently, it was that lack of racism that made her a fanatical patriot for France. She had after all witnessed the St Louis race riots of 1917, which left long memories.
When war came in 1939, she lived in France, and after 1940 in the country’s southern unoccupied zone. Here, she devoted her time to supporting the Resistance. As an entertainer (and not a US citizen), she could travel freely across the Mediterranean world, and she made full use of that opportunity to smuggle crucial intelligence information and German war plans. Sheet music proved an excellent means for communicating coded messages. As a black show business personality in 1940s Europe, she was so conspicuous that no one would ever suspect her of trying to do anything clandestine. Yet on every mission, she risked torture and execution.
You can read easily enough about her later career as a civil rights activist back in the US, who fought to desegregate the entertainment world, and she was a noted warrior for the NAACP. After dealing regularly with the Gestapo, Baker really had no fear of any civilians. She was the only official woman speaker at the March on Washington, and as I noted, some accounts hold that Coretta Scott King wanted to see her become the figurehead of the civil rights movement. Reportedly, Baker considered the invitation very carefully, but refused because of her Rainbow Tribe – the dozen children of all races and ethnicities she had adopted. She had no wish to leave them alone if she was assassinated in her turn. Realistically too – in the context of the late 1960s, could the media really have accepted a black woman as the face of a national movement?
Josephine Baker died in 1975. At her funeral, she received full French military honors, with a 21-gun salute.
So when we recall the Civil Rights movement, do devote a moment to one of the great figures of the age, even if we set aside all the myth-making. Now there is someone worth celebrating.
I am happy to say that she has been on a US postage stamp.