James Baldwin Bests William F. Buckley in 1965 Debate at Cambridge University

Author of the nov­el Giovanni’s Room and the non­fic­tion col­lec­tion “Notes of a Native Son,” James Bald­win was also a scathing social crit­ic, a wit­ty yet for­mi­da­ble media per­son­al­i­ty, and a lit­er­ary ambas­sador for civ­il rights. And, as an out­spo­ken gay man, he decried dis­crim­i­na­tion against gays and les­bians. In 1965, he accept­ed an invi­ta­tion by Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty to debate the “father of Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism” William F. Buck­ley on the sub­ject, “The Amer­i­can Dream is at the Expense of the Amer­i­can Negro.” In the video above, Bald­win (intro­duced as the “star of the evening”) deliv­ers his stir­ring open­ing remarks, set­ting the tone he main­tains through­out and pulling his near­ly all-white audi­ence to the edge of their seats.

Buck­ley, found­ing edi­tor of the con­ser­v­a­tive jour­nal Nation­al Review, had come out four years ear­li­er against deseg­re­ga­tion and Civ­il Rights leg­is­la­tion and was in the midst of his ulti­mate­ly failed 1965 New York City may­oral cam­paign. He was always will­ing to engage with his ide­o­log­i­cal adver­saries (see him debate Noam Chom­sky in 1969 on his long-run­ning tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Fir­ing Line), but remained a staunch oppo­nent of lib­er­al­ism. In this clip from the debate, Buck­ley responds to many of Bald­win’s asser­tions:

Bald­win had just fin­ished his nov­el Anoth­er Coun­try when this debate took place. He was 41, Buck­ley 40. While both are well-known for the rhetor­i­cal savvy on dis­play here, in this case at least, Bald­win proved the more per­sua­sive voice. After the debate, the Cam­bridge Union Soci­ety took a vote and decid­ed the issue in his favor, 540–160.

You can (and should) view the full debate, here.

Josh Jones is cur­rent­ly a doc­tor­al stu­dent in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

375+ Episodes of William F. Buckley’s Fir­ing Line Now Online: Fea­tures Talks with Chom­sky, Borges, Ker­ouac, Gins­berg & More

James Bald­win Debates Mal­colm X (1963) and William F. Buck­ley (1965): Vin­tage Video & Audio

Great Cul­tur­al Icons Talk Civ­il Rights: James Bald­win, Mar­lon Bran­do, Har­ry Bela­fonte & Sid­ney Poiti­er (1963)

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Comments (7)
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  • Carol Fegan says:

    A minor quib­ble, but Anoth­er Coun­try was pub­lished in 1962. Won­der­ful debate!

  • Sarah says:

    Pow­er­ful debate! One of the most remark­able aspects of it (sad­ly) is the audi­ence mem­bers. Notice how no one is check­ing a smart­phone. They’re all lis­ten­ing. Peo­ple used to have actu­al atten­tion spans! Here, cap­tured on film.

    • julia says:

      i guar­an­tee not every­one’s lis­ten­ing.. if they had smart­phones, they’d be check­ing them. the audi­ence dwin­dles quite notice­ably once bald­win is fin­ished.

  • Jen Hanks says:

    The uni­ver­si­ty press where I work pub­lished a nov­el by Alger­ian writer Nabile Fares that includes an inter­view with Bald­win about exile and the search for iden­ti­ty.

  • Warren says:

    I saw the live debate and, from time-to-time, I’ve looked for it ever since. I final­ly gave up, but today turned out to be my lucky day because I found it while look­ing for some­thing else. Any­way, I final­ly found it, and I’ll be view­ing it again lat­er today. The rea­son I am here is that I stum­bled across your web­site while look­ing for Bald­win’s post debate remarks about the debate.I thought it was impor­tant to find those remarks, because they were noth­ing less than a fee­ble apol­o­gy for his mis­er­able debate per­for­mance, or at least an acknowl­edg­ment that Buck­ley had had his way with him. What were the remarks? Well, I’d like to quote them exact­ly, but haven’t found them yet. How­ev­er, when I do I’ll be back. Any­way, Bald­win said that he should have socked Buck­ley. In oth­er words he was say­ing that Buck­ley was imper­vi­ous to Bald­win’s supe­ri­or intel­li­gence and log­ic, so phys­i­cal force was the only option.

  • Dan Bell says:

    Essen­tial­ly on Buck­ley’s part a revis­it­ing of the White Mans Bur­den first pro­posed by Rud­yard Kipling in his work of the same name. That is to say West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion is sacro­sanct and the ulti­mate­ly def­i­n­i­tion of it means to be civilised.

  • cow says:

    so bald­win thought he lost the debate?

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