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)

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • 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?

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.