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

One often hears lament­ed the lack of well-spo­ken pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als in Amer­i­ca today. Very often, the lamenters look back to James Bald­win, who in the 1950s and 1960s wrote such pow­er­ful race‑, class‑, and sex-exam­in­ing books as Go Tell It on the Moun­tainGio­van­ni’s Room, and The Fire Next Time, as one of the great­est fig­ures in the field. Though Bald­win expa­tri­at­ed him­self to France for much of his life, he seems nev­er to have let the state of his home­land drift far from his mind, and his opin­ions on it con­tin­ued to put a charge into the grand Amer­i­can debate.

Upon one return from Paris in 1957, Bald­win found him­self wrapped up in the con­tro­ver­sy around the Civ­il Rights Act and the relat­ed move­ments across the south. He wrote sev­er­al high-pro­file essays on the sub­ject, even end­ing up him­self the sub­ject of a 1963 Time mag­a­zine cov­er sto­ry on his views. That same year, he went on a lec­ture tour on race in Amer­i­ca which put him in close con­tact with a vari­ety of stu­dent move­ments and oth­er protests, whose effi­ca­cy he and Mal­colm X debat­ed in the broad­cast above.

“While Mal­colm X crit­i­cized the sit-in move­ment as pas­sive,” writes Rhon­da Y. Williams in Con­crete Demands: The Search for Black Pow­er in the 20th Cen­tu­ry, “Bald­win argued that ‘main­tain­ing calm in the face of vit­ri­ol demands a tremen­dous amount of pow­er.’ ” He goes on to say that “when the sit-in move­ment start­ed or when a great many things start­ed in the west­ern world, I think it had a great deal less to do with equal­i­ty than with pow­er.” This got him won­der­ing about what he saw as the all-impor­tant dis­tinc­tion between “pow­er and equal­i­ty” and “pow­er and free­dom.”

Two years lat­er, Bald­win appeared in anoth­er high-pro­file debate with about as dif­fer­ent an inter­locu­tor from Mal­colm X as one can imag­ine: Fir­ing Line host William F. Buck­ley, across from whom every well-spo­ken pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al in Amer­i­ca of that era must have sat at one time or anoth­er. They dis­cussed whether the Amer­i­can Dream comes “at the expense of the Amer­i­can negro.” Buck­ley, as Josh Jones wrote here in 2012, “had come out four years ear­li­er against deseg­re­ga­tion and Civ­il Rights leg­is­la­tion” and could ably defend his posi­tions, but “Bald­win proved the more per­sua­sive voice.”

Dis­sect­ing the skills of Bald­win the debater, John Warn­er of Inside High­er Edu­ca­tion writes that “Baldwin’s remarks dis­play all the skill and moves of an expert per­suad­er” such as “the atten­dance to audi­ence, the acknowl­edge­ment of their needs, the com­bi­na­tion of both emo­tion­al and log­i­cal argu­ment.” His argu­ments also have their roots not in “atti­tudes or beliefs, which are var­ied and change­able, but val­ues, which are wide­ly shared and immutable.”

Bald­win, Warn­er con­tin­ues, “reminds us that Amer­i­ca is the land of the free, the home of the brave, that all men are cre­at­ed equal, that we are here to pur­sue life, lib­er­ty, hap­pi­ness,” but “while these val­ues are pow­er­ful and time­less, our under­stand­ing of how they may be best achieved, the con­di­tions under which they can be fos­tered change all the time.” Whether on the air or in text, against Mal­colm X, William F. Buck­ley, or any­one else, his per­for­mance in debate shows that “the best and most last­ing per­sua­sion is sim­ply the act of remind­ing peo­ple of what they already believe to be true.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

James Bald­win: Wit­ty, Fiery in Berke­ley, 1979

Mal­colm X, Debat­ing at Oxford, Quotes Shakespeare’s Ham­let (1964)

Mal­colm X at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty 1964

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

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!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.