The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

William F. Buckley Jr. vs. James Baldwin: A racial showdown on the American dream

Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the riveting 1965 debate between the two writers — one white, the other black — on YouTube

Left: James Baldwin in New York City in 1963. Right: William F. Buckley Jr. in New York City in 1965. (AP)
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The way William F. Buckley Jr. remembered it later, he never had a chance.

Within weeks of losing a formal debate against writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, Buckley said that no matter what he had done, it would have been impossible for him to win that night. The student audience at the Cambridge Union was “an orgy of anti-Americanism,” he said, who gave Baldwin “a standing ovation” before “he had uttered a single word.”

But that isn’t what happened. The students were mostly British conservatives, and they gave Baldwin the same polite applause, with no standing, before his speech that they gave Buckley. We know this because the debate was recorded and broadcast repeatedly in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1965, and now has an everlasting life on YouTube, where it has received more than a million views.

The debate is the subject of a new book by political scientist Nicholas Buccola, “The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America.”

Buccola takes a different view of why Buckley lost that night in February 1965.

Buckley “never really took Baldwin seriously as an intellectual adversary,” Buccola said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He just sort of treated him as a threat to what he believed in, and he distorted Baldwin’s views to try to advance his agenda.”

Sparring partners

Baldwin and Buckley were almost too perfect as sparring partners. They were about the same age and grew up in large families less than 100 miles from one another — Baldwin in the “ghetto” of New York’s Harlem neighborhood and Buckley in a mansion with dozens of rooms in Sharon, Ct. Both hit success as writers in their 20s and were regarded as the most erudite thinkers in their respective milieus.

By 1965, Buckley was the editor in chief of the conservative magazine he had founded, National Review. And Baldwin was a highly praised writer of novels, plays and essays with a new book, “Another Country,” soon to be released in paperback in the U.K. He was at the height of his stardom.

But that January, Baldwin was also recovering from a serious viral infection in the South of France. As a U.K. book tour was being planned for the next month, his agent warned the publisher’s press guy not to plan too much, for the already slight man was still weak.

The publicist ignored him, Buccola wrote, filling nearly every minute of the tour with events. And he had a very big idea — a debate at the famed Cambridge Union. Malcolm X had spoken at Oxford weeks before to much ado, and the publicist hoped to repeat that success.

Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost.

The student organizers set about finding a worthy speaker to challenge Baldwin, and began inviting segregationist senators. All turned them down.

Then they asked Buckley, who was conveniently already in Europe. His wife had broken her leg in a skiing accident, and Buckley was tending to her bedside in Switzerland. But, perhaps tempted by the prospect of exercising his college-debate skills, he decided he could leave her briefly for an evening of argument.

A week before the debate, Baldwin’s agent caught wind of the idea and sent a blunt cable to the publicist: “Have advised Baldwin strongly against participating in debate with Buckley. Please cancel it.”

It’s unclear why or how, Buccola wrote, but that order was ignored, and the show simply went on.

‘I built the railroads’

Baldwin arrived in London on Feb. 16 and dined that night with the student organizers, who explained to him the rules of formal debate. First, two students would speak briefly for and against the motion, and then Baldwin would give a lengthier argument, followed by Buckley’s rebuttal. Students in the audience could rise to ask a question at any time. At the end, they would vote for or against the motion.

The student organizers had also come up with the motion, a provocative one they thought represented a theme in Baldwin’s work: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”

Two nights later, the union hall was packed as tightly as a fire marshal’s worst nightmare. Students crammed onto the benches, sat on the stairs, and even tucked themselves around the lecterns from which the men would argue their cases.

When Baldwin rose to speak, he pulled out his notes and tensely sipped a glass of water.

First, he dispatched with the notion that the American Dream was available to African Americans. He described what it was like to be a black child in the “glittering republic,” and since every face of success and happiness you see is white, you assume you are white, too.

“It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”

He described the painful demoralization black citizens feel “by the time you are 30,″ when they realize that not only could they not escape the trap of white supremacy, but that their children wouldn’t be able to, either.

I devoured James Baldwin’s ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ when I was 13. It changed my life.

Then, he said, he must turn to this notion of “expense.” “The harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country,” especially the South, could not have been built, he said, without “cheap labor.”

And here, he changed to first person, an odd but effective choice, looked out at the young audience and boomed:

“I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”

James Baldwin describes the "expense" African Americans pay living in the United States in a debate at the Cambridge Union in 1965. (Video: Cambridge Union)

Baldwin spoke for 24 minutes. He wasn’t interrupted by a student’s question a single time; to do so “would have been profane,” Buccola said. When he finished, the crowd applauded politely before bursting into an extended standing ovation.

When Buckley rose, he appeared far more comfortable than Baldwin, and moved around speaking with ease. But what he had to say was quite a shock.

He suggested to the students that they had just showered Baldwin with praise not because he was eloquent and persuasive, but because he was black.

“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,” he said.

He said that in Baldwin’s classic “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin “threatens America” with destruction if it didn’t bend to his desires fast enough.

And, he said, Baldwin “didn’t, in writing that book, speak with the British accents that he used exclusively tonight.”

The audience was appalled at the perceived accusation, laughing derisively and calling out “Shame!” Baldwin himself responded like this:

Having read much of Buckley’s writing at the time, Buccola said he thinks the crowd misunderstood Buckley’s meaning. Buckley was not accusing Baldwin of affecting the queen’s English, but rather of moderating for the elite audience what he perceived as Baldwin’s “true radical colors.”

But that notion, too, was based on a “misread” of “The Fire Next Time,” Buccola said. Buckley seemed to think that Baldwin was “hellbent on overthrowing Western civilization,” instead of warning that a conflagration would be the inevitable conclusion of a society that abused a portion of its citizens.

It didn’t get much better for Buckley after that. Buckley said he felt “compassion” for injustices visited upon Baldwin but that the solution wasn’t the overthrow of civilization, which, again, Baldwin had not suggested. He suggested at least part of the problem was that African Americans lacked “that particular energy” to uplift themselves like the Jews, Italians and Irish had. He took several questions and gave witty responses, but he also meandered and had trouble sticking to the motion he had come to rebut.

In the end, when the students voted, Baldwin carried the evening, 544 to 164.

Three days later, after a wildly successful book tour, Baldwin celebrated with his sister at a fancy restaurant in London. He was interrupted mid-meal with the news that Malcolm X had been assassinated.

Malcolm X didn’t fear being killed: ‘I live like a man who is dead already’

The response back home

The New York Times carried an item on the “wild applause” for Baldwin the next day. And, a few weeks later, it reprinted both men’s speeches nearly in full. It was March 7, 1965, the same day an Alabama sheriff attacked peaceful protesters in Selma, Ala., in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Talk of a stateside rematch started almost immediately, and the moment came that summer, when Baldwin and Buckley appeared on the talk show “Open End.” Baldwin’s agent again warned him against it, and this time the advice proved prescient. Without formal rules providing the space to build an argument, Baldwin withered under Buckley’s fast and accusatory delivery, Buccola wrote, at times appearing almost too shocked to respond. That’s according to what critics wrote about it, anyway — neither a tape nor transcript of the program still exists.

Soon afterward, the broadcast of the Cambridge debate made it stateside, airing repeatedly on several networks.

Little is known of what Baldwin thought about the legendary debate. He doesn’t seem to have talked about it publicly, and many of his personal letters, which are at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, are not available publicly until 2037. But when that day comes, Buccola told The Post, he expects to find “a juicy letter” all about it.

Buckley told and retold the story of the Cambridge debate, with his inaccurate additions, throughout his life, even once calling it “the most satisfying debate I ever had.” But over the years, his opinion of the civil rights movement moved closer to Baldwin’s. By the 1980s, he was advocating for the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and in 2004 he told Time magazine: “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong. Federal intervention was necessary.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said Buckley’s house had more than 100 rooms, based on a galley version of Buccola’s book. The house is best described as having dozens of rooms. A previous version also misstated the location of Malcolm X’s speech weeks before the debate. It was at Oxford.

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