Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
It has been 55 years since civil-rights activist, James Baldwin, and founder of the conservative National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr., met for a debate on race in America. That discussion and the lives of the two cultural giants are subjects of a new book, "The Fire is Upon Us." Zachary Green spoke with author and political scientist Nicholas Buccola about how the debate's still resonating.
Tuesday will mark 55 years since two of America's most influential intellectuals faced off in a debate in England at Cambridge University's debating society – the Cambridge Union. It was a debate about race: one that still fascinates and resonates today and is the subject of a new book. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green has our story.
William F. Buckley, Jr.:
The trouble in America where the Negro community is concerned is a very complicated one.
It comes as a great shock to discover that the country—which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity—has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.
On the evening of February 18, 1965, two cultural giants—James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr.—squared off in-person for the first time. More than 50 years later, the debate still resonates. Political science professor Nicholas Buccola of Linfield College in Oregon was so taken with the skirmish that he wrote a book about it: "The Fire is Upon Us".
It just seemed to me just such a dramatic moment and—such an important one. So these two movements that did so much to define 20th century—political history—to have these two figures clashing—was just—just irresistible.
Though Baldwin and Buckley were about the same age, their lives could not have begun more differently. Baldwin grew up in poverty in Harlem, and went from waiting tables in New York's Greenwich Village to become a literary critic and, eventually, a renowned novelist and essayist. Buckley, a scion of wealth, graduated from Yale and became an influential magazine editor and columnist. Both wrote extensively about race in 1950s and 60s America—though from drastically different points of view. Buckley made his position clear in a 1957 national review piece called "why the south must prevail"—in which he contended that white southerners were entitled to—quote—"take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally" over black citizens.
And Buckley says explicitly that they have this right and duty because they are (and this is a quote), "For the time being the advanced race." And he calls on people in the South—they have an obligation to promote the cultural equality of black people, and that eventually they need to allow them in—to, you know—empower them with full citizenship.
What did Baldwin think was at the heart of the racial divide in America?
What Baldwin said from, you know, some of his earliest—earliest writings on this is that—these people are scared. Their identity is wrapped up in this idea that their whiteness is what gives them their only source of moral worth in the world, it's what gives them value in the world. Baldwin says that is an extraordinarily sad moral life that that person is leading. That is the thing they are clinging to—to give them a sense of meaning.
Buccola interviewed members of Cambridge University's debating society—the Cambridge Union—who were present at the 1965 debate. They said the union agreed to let Baldwin appear as part of a publicity tour for one of his books—as long as another guest challenged him on one of the themes of his writings. They ultimately invited Buckley who accepted. The motion debated was this: "The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro."
Baldwin starts his speech with this idea that we can't even begin reflecting on the moral and political questions at hand without first addressing this—this question of, "What is one's system of reality?"
The Mississippi, or the Alabama, sheriff, who really does believe when he's facing a Negro, a boy or a girl, that this woman, this man, this child, must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. Of course, for such a person, the proposition of which, which we are trying to discuss here to night, does not exist.
There's this one kind of remarkable point in the speech where Baldwin suddenly shifts from speaking in the second person to speaking in the first person.
I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, that I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else's whip, for nothing. For nothing.
What do you think his purpose was in making this shift?
Baldwin wants to call on everyone watching that debate to recognize that white supremacy is not something in the past. It's something that's central to all of our lives, and that we are all in some sense complicit in it, and we all have a responsibility to fight back against it. And he talks about the ways in which the moral lives of white people have been destroyed by this plague called "color."
No matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being, that is one of the worst. I suggest that what has happened to white southerners is in some ways, after all, much worse than what has happened to Negroes there.
When Baldwin ended his remarks, he received a standing ovation. Then it was Buckley's turn to take the floor.
It is impossible, in my judgment, to deal with the indictment of Mr. Baldwin unless one is prepared to deal with him as a white man.
This is a strange argument for many of us to hear, but here's what Buckley had in mind. For Buckley, part of the experience of being treated as a black person was to not have one's ideas taken seriously. And so Buckley's argument was that, "I will treat Baldwin as a white man," t—that for Buckley that meant, "I will take his ideas seriously, and I will call him out for the ideas that I think are dangerous."
Buckley went to describe what he saw as the causes of racial inequality in America.
One is the dreadful efforts to perpetuate discrimination by many individual American citizens as a result of their lack of that final and ultimate concern which some people are truly trying to agitate. The other is as a result of the failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions, which were made by other minority groups during the American experience.
Buckley is very careful to say, "There are individual white people. So it's not a collective problem. There are some bad apples out there, and that need to be addressed." But then he says really the central problem is that African Americans aren't taking advantage of the opportunities that are available to them.
At the time of the debate in early 1965, the voting rights act had not yet passed and black people in the South still faced enormous barriers at the ballot box. At one point during Buckley's remarks, an American audience member interjected.
One thing you might do, Mr. Buckley, is let them vote in Mississippi.
I think actually what is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are voting.
The audience laughs, but Buckley is deadly serious about this. He's still supporting disenfranchisement of black people, but he's saying, "I'll also disenfranchise some white people and leave only a white elite to control the situation in the South." And he's using things like this idea of colorblind constitutionalism as a way to kind of hollow out the accomplishment of the civil rights movement.
At the end of the debate, a vote was taken to determine the "winner." Baldwin received 544 votes. Buckley just 164. But Buckley was far from discouraged.
He says, "I am so proud of my performance that night because I did not give them one g*****n inch." That really captures his creed in—in—you know, a very short slogan, right?
In Buckley's final analysis, the divide between Baldwin and Buckley is reflective of the political divide facing Americans even today.
To be a patriot for Buckley meant standing up for the institutions and ideas that you take to be—central to the American political experiment, and he viewed his role throughout his life as—as being somebody who would be a guardian of those ideals against ideas, and—and institutions, and groups that he thought were threatening to those ideals. Baldwin says that patriotism requires a constant criticism, a constant reflection on the ways in which we're falling short of our—our ideals and—and to love one's country means that we have to do that together. It's the foundation of morally how we sh—how we ought to behave, how we ought to live together, and it's the foundation politically of what we need to do as a country to move closer to justice.
Watch the Full Episode
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.