Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Maria Popova
In 1959, the Ford Foundation invited a small international group of up-and-coming creative writers to visit America on a six-month scholarship — a Herculean feat under an administration that made it as close to impossible as possible for foreigners suspected of communist views, which included most foreigners, to enter the United States. Among them were an English poet, a French novelist, a Spanish playwright, a Flemish-Belgian poet, an Israeli essayist and scholar of politics and religion, and the young Italian journalist and writer Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985), who had just published his fifth book of fiction. (The great German writer and graphic artist Günter Grass was also invited, but failed the medical exam mandated by U.S. immigration — “the barbaric law that you have to have sound lungs to enter America,” as Calvino put it — and had to relinquish his scholarship. Of those invited, Grass would go on to be the only writer to win the Nobel Prize.)
Calvino recorded the journey in a series of exquisite diary entires and letters, beginning with his time on the ocean liner (“The only thing that you can glean from it is a definition of boredom as being somehow out of phase with history, a feeling of being cut off but with the consciousness that everything else is still going on.”), which landed him in New York, “the most spectacular sight that anyone can see on this earth.” He spent four of the six months there, and traveled around the country for the remaining two. (“I stopped at Savannah, Georgia, to sleep and have a look at it, attracted only by its beautiful name and by some historical, literary or musical memory, but no one said I should go there, no one in any State of the United States. AND IT IS THE MOST BEAUTIFUL CITY IN THE UNITED STATES. Absolutely, there is nothing to compare with it.”)
Calvino collected his impressions under the working title An Optimist in America, but ultimately decided not to publish the book. “It hadn’t turned out badly,” he wrote to a friend, “but for me to go down the road taken by travel writers was opting for an easy way out.” And yet when his wife found these American diaries and letters among his papers after his death, she instantly recognized that they offered a singular glimpse of Calvino as a writer — “the most spontaneous and direct one we have,” she writes in the preface to the posthumously published Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (public library).
But they also offer something else — a singular glimpse of America itself, revealed in a mirror held up by an impartial guest with no agenda of his own, animated only by the benevolent curiosity of an itinerant idealist. What Calvino’s mirror reveals is both timeless and staggeringly timely, nowhere more so than in his writings about America’s pathology of racial injustice and the difficult, necessary awakening of public consciousness that he witnessed in the early civil rights movement, replete with its hard-won potential for healing a ruptured nation.
Through that peculiar convergence of chance and choice that shapes our lives, Calvino found himself in Montgomery, Alabama on the fateful day of the student protests that catalyzed national attention for the civil rights movement. He had read about and come to admire Martin Luther King, Jr. — a “young black political activist [with] no particular social or political programme except equal rights for blacks” — and, being a politically wakeful young man with strong values of social justice himself, set out to meet him. So he traveled to Montgomery, but didn’t anticipate that his arrival would coincide with the landmark march whose ethos of nonviolence contoured the harrowing racial violence that dogged the American South and haunted the American spirit.
In a diary entry from March 6, 1960, Calvino writes:
This is a day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society’s fundamental rules. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: and it ended in defeat. I don’t know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle.
The scene today is Alabama’s Capitol (which was the first Confederate Capitol, in the early months of the secession, before the capital moved to Richmond), a white building like the Washington Capitol, on a wide, climbing street, Dexter Street. The black students (from the black university) had declared that they would go to the Capitol steps for a peaceful protest demonstration against the expulsion of nine of them from the university, who last week had tried to sit down in the whites’ coffee shop in Court Hall, the State court building. At half-past one there was a meeting of the students at the Baptist church right beside the Capitol (the church where King had been minister, but now he is based in Atlanta directing the whole movement — though in these days he is back here — and his church has another local leader). But the Capitol was already ringed by policemen with truncheons and Highway Police in their cowboy hats, turquoise jerkins and khaki trousers. The pavements were swarming with whites, mostly poor whites who are the worst racists, ready to use their fists, young hooligans working in teams (their organization, which is only barely clandestine, is the Ku Klux Klan), but also comfortable middle-class people, families with children, all there to watch and shout slogans and obscenities against the blacks locked inside the church, plus of course dozens of amateur photographers taking shots of such unusual Sunday events. The crowd’s attitude varied between derision, as though they were watching monkeys asking for civil rights (genuine derision, from people who never thought the blacks could get such ideas in their heads), to hatred, cries of provocation, crow-like sounds made by the young thugs. Here and there, along the pavement, there are also a few small groups of blacks, standing aside, men and women, dressed in their best clothes, watching silently and still, in an attitude of composure.
The waiting becomes more and more unbearable, the blacks must by now have finished their service and must be ready to come out; the Capitol steps are blocked by the police, all the pavements are blocked by the crowd of whites who are now angry and shouting ‘Come out, niggers!’ The blacks start to appear on the steps of their church and begin singing a hymn; the whites begin to make a racket, howling and insulting them. The fire-fighters arrive with their hoses and position themselves all around; the police begin to give orders to clear the streets, in other words to warn the whites that if they stay it is at their own risk and peril, whereas the small groups of blacks are dispersed roughly. There is a sound of horse-hooves and the scene is invaded by cowboys wearing the CD (Civil Defense) armband, a local militia of volunteers to keep public order, armed with sticks and guns; the police and militia are there to avoid incidents and see that the blacks clear off, but in reality the whites remain in charge of the street, the blacks stay in their church singing hymns, the police manage to send away only the most peaceful whites, the white thugs become more and more menacing and I who am keen to stay and see how things turn out (naturally, I am on my own; the few problack whites cannot allow themselves to be seen in these situations, well-known as they are) find myself surrounded by tougher and tougher looking characters, but also by youths who are there as though to see something funny, and just to make a noise. (I will later learn — though I did not see him — that there is also a white Methodist minister — the only white man in Montgomery with the courage to make a stand for the blacks — and as a result his house and his church have already been bombed twice by the KKK — who was there in front of the church and had organized his white congregation into providing a service to take the blacks safely from the church door to the cars; but, I repeat, I did not see him; the images in my head are of an all-out racial war, with no halfway houses.) Then begins the most painful part to watch: the blacks come out of the church a few at a time, some head down a sidestreet that I cannot see, but which I think the police have cleared of whites, but others go down Dexter Avenue in small groups along the pavements where the white thugs have gathered, walking away silently with their heads held high amid choruses of threatening and obscene sneers, insults and gestures.
In a sentiment of tragic pertinence to our own era, a half-century of pseudo-progress later, he adds:
At every insult or witticism made by a white, the other whites, men and women, burst out laughing, sometimes with almost hysterical insistence, but sometimes also just like that, affably, and these people, as far as I am concerned, are the most awful, this all-out racism combined with affability.
Of all the protesters, Calvino is most moved by the young black women, who model persistence poise as the most powerful force of nonviolent resistance:
The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet, standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest that they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.
Calvino captures the gruesome violence encircling the nonviolence movement:
With this courtroom coffee-shop row, last week the whole city went into a state of tension like in a civil war, the KKK put bombs in several houses (I visited some of the people who had been bombed) and a few days ago they clubbed a black woman over the head with a baseball bat and the judge did not find the KKK person accused guilty despite witnesses, photographs, etc. The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation which is 75 per cent nonsegregationist, and how they can take place without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual States is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East.
He details his unforgettable encounter with Dr. King:
The minute I arrived in Montgomery, into the hottest part of this situation, I learnt that King was in town and I got them to take me to him. He is a very stout and capable person … with a little moustache: the fact that he is a pastor has nothing to do with his physical appearance (his second-in-command and successor, Abernathy, a young rather fat man who also has a small moustache, looks like a jazz-player), these are politicians whose only weapon is the pulpit and even their non-violence does not really have a mystical aura about it: it is the only form of struggle possible and they use it with the controlled political skill which the extreme harshness of their conditions has taught them. These black leaders — I’ve approached several of them in the last few days, of different tendencies — are lucid, decisive people, totally devoid of black self-pity, not terribly kind (though of course I was an unknown foreigner who had turned up to nose around in days which were very eventful for them).
Calvino steps back to look at the bigger picture, including the hypocrisies with which the nation’s attitude toward race is laced:
The race question is a damnable thing: for a century a huge country like the South has not spoken or thought about anything else, just this problem, whether they are progressives or reactionaries. So I arrive escorted by blacks in the sacristy of Abernathy’s church and King is there along with another black minister who is also a leader, and I am present at a council-of-war meeting where they decide on this Sunday’s course of action which I have just described to you; then we go to another church where the students have gathered, in order to give them this instruction, and then I stay for this dramatic, moving meeting, I the sole white among three thousand black students, perhaps the first white to do so in the whole history of the South. Naturally I have come here also with introductions to extremely racist, ultra-reactionary highsociety ladies, and I have to divide my days with acrobatic skill so that they do not suspect what a deadly enemy they are harbouring in their midst.
In a passage that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil” in the context of the Nazis, Calvino describes his interaction with one such racist highsociety lady:
After the Capitol, I have ten minutes of peace to calm down after all the emotion, then a high-society lady comes to collect me and shows me, as we drive along, their factory of gherkins in vinegar, and hints vaguely at the day’s ‘troubles’ caused by that agitator Luther King. This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous.
In a letter from January of 1985, shortly before his death, Calvino reflects on his decision not to publish the American diaries:
I decided not to publish the book because rereading it at proof stage I felt it was too slight as a work of literature and not original enough to be a work of journalistic reportage. Was I right? Who knows?
Perhaps only the future knows — and from the vantage point of our present, which was then his future, how fortunate that these insightful and timely writings now survive. Calvino himself captures the broader significance of the questions they raise in another piece from the volume:
What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly fantastic Hermit in Paris with Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s little-known correspondence about racial justice, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s sobering 1970 conversation about race and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, and Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s unheralded civil rights advocacy, then revisit Calvino on the two types of writers, photography and the art of presence, and how to assert yourself and live with integrity.
Published February 13, 2017