Baldwin vs. Buckley

James Baldwin embraces actor Marlon Brando at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In the back are actors Charlton Heston and Harry Belafonte.


Nicholas Buccola

On Feb. 18, 1965, James Baldwin, novelist, essayist and “poet of the civil rights revolution,” and William F. Buckley Jr., America’s most visible conservative intellectual, author of “God and Man at Yale,’ and founder of the National Review, squared off in a televised debate held at Cambridge University in England. 

The motion before the house – “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” – was crafted to get Baldwin and Buckley to address the relationship between freedom, equality, and opportunity and the “racial nightmare” that was tearing the nation apart. 

In “The Fire is upon Us,’’ Nicholas Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College in Oregon, and the author of “The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass,’’ sets the context for the epic confrontation, illuminating two vastly different visions of race relations in the United States that, to a great extent, remain relevant today. 

Admiration for Baldwin 

Buccola is especially effective in setting the stage.  He provides informative biographical sketches of Baldwin, a gay African American raised in Harlem, and Buckley, whose life of privilege led him to Yale University, which inspired the book that launched his career.

And Buccola provides an enlightening account of the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s, including the desegregation of schools, the Freedom Riders, the rise of the Nation of Islam, federal legislation guaranteeing access to public accommodations and voting rights, and the “backlash” in northern as well as southern states. 

Buccola does not hide his admiration for Baldwin or his contempt for Buckley. 

Not surprisingly, he endorses Baldwin’s citation of the “bloody catalog of oppression” that included rapes, murders and the destruction of a sense of self-worth.


The Fire is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America’’ by Nicholas Buccola. Princeton University Press, 482 pages. $29.95

Buckley called shallow 

Buccola does not, however, interrogate Baldwin’s prophetic mode of argument, his unwillingness to commit to an ideology or political program, or his conviction that the Voting Rights Act would not alter the fundamental structure of racial hierarchy. 

To refute Buckley, Buccola relies more on himself than on Baldwin. He describes Buckley as “shallow and misguided”; prone to mischaracterizing Baldwin as hostile to Jesus Christ and Western civilization; and as a White supremacist, committed to elite rule, who hid behind libertarian, states’ rights, and constitutional arguments, and blamed the victims for their plight.

Buckley on rioters

In 1965, Buccola indicates, Buckley insisted that law enforcement officers acted with superhuman restraint during the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. 

The rioters in Watts, California “became animals… The best way to guarantee that what happened shall happen again is to moon over the affair and yelp about injustices by whites to Negroes.” 

As late as 2004, Buckley maintained that he had been right to say that Blacks were not “sufficiently advanced” to receive the rights and freedoms granted to other Americans. 

A sad truth

Buccola concludes, provocatively, that although Buckley lost the debate at Cambridge, he used racial resentment to help conservatives capture the Republican party, take control of southern politics, and win the presidency in seven of the last ten elections. The price of victory, he adds, “has been incredibly high.” 

Along with Buckley, many conservatives find their reliance on dog whistle appeals to race and “deals with the devil of White supremacy” distasteful, “but they cling to it because they know it gives life to their agenda.”

Fear and scapegoating of people of color, Buccola emphasizes, “was true in Buckley’s time, and it is true in our own.” 

The story of two eloquent wordsmiths, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr., serves as a reminder that moral righteousness that lays bare the depravity of White supremacy “is not often sufficient to gain political power,” a sad truth “we ignore at our peril.”

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.


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