An American Original Inducted into the French Pantheon – Josephine Baker

Today’s post was written by Netisha Currie, archives specialist at the National Archives at College Park.

On November 30, 2021, Josephine Baker was bestowed the honor of Panthéonisation – being inducted into the national mausoleum of heroes at the French Pantheon. She is the first entertainer, Black woman, American, and only the sixth woman to receive such honors. The distinction is given in recognition for Baker’s service as a member of the French Resistance during World War II, her passion for civil rights and equality, as well as her feats in entertainment. Although well loved and honored in her adopted country of France, Josephine Baker also participated in the Civil Rights movement of the United States, most notably by speaking at the March on Washington in 1963.

The original program for the March on Washington (NAID 26080947) allotted one slot in which to acknowledge the many Black women “Fighters for Freedom.” This group included Daisy Bates, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, Gloria Richardson, and the widow of Herbert Lee. Myrlie Evers was supposed to speak. When Mrs. Evers’ was unable to attend, Josephine Baker was ultimately chosen as the only woman that would speak at the March. All other women featured at the Lincoln Memorial steps performed songs. In a letter to President John F. Kennedy, Baker expresses her intentions for attending the March, “not as an agitator but as one who believes profoundly in the Rights and Dignity of Man and the urgent necessity of unity amongst all peoples.”

Baker expresses her hopes for the upcoming March on Washington
Letter from Josephine Baker to President John F. Kennedy, Aug 15, 1963 (White House Central Subject Files, Kennedy Library)

At the March, Josephine Baker wore her French Resistance uniform and the medals awarded to her for her service. In her speech, Baker acknowledged her time away from the United States, recounted events of her life, and encouraged the crowd to keep the fight going. Baker was not the only expat or famous entertainer on the National Mall that day. James Baldwin, who followed in Baker’s steps emigrating to France, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and other entertainers were also in attendance.

Friends and family…you know I have lived a long time and I have come a long way. 

… And I need not tell you that wonderful things happened to me there. Now I know that all you children don’t know who Josephine Baker is, but you ask Grandma and Grandpa and they will tell you. You know what they will say. “Why, she was a devil.” And you know something…why, they are right. I was too. I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America too.

… You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I cold not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad. And when I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ‘cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.

So I did open my mouth, and you know I did scream, and when I demanded what I was supposed to have and what I was entitled to, they still would not give it to me.

So then they thought they could smear me, and the best way to do that was to call me a communist. And you know, too, what that meant. Those were dreaded words in those days, and I want to tell you also that I was hounded by the government agencies in America, and there was never one ounce of proof that I was a communist. But they were mad. They were mad because I told the truth.

… I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done. Then, when my fires have burned out, and I go where we all go someday, I can be happy. …

Baker speaking at a microphone
Josephine Baker speaking, nd (NAID 20004668)

After returning to France, Baker wrote again to President Kennedy noting that the March was “the greatest moment of my life.” With much the same fervor and dedication she gave to the cause of French liberation during World War II, she encourages Kennedy, “now is the time, do what is indispensable to be done, but you must do it now and not wait.”

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