Watch the Famous James Baldwin-William F. Buckley Debate in Full, With Restored Audio (1965)

When James Bald­win took the stage to debate William F. Buck­ley at Cam­bridge in 1965, it was to have “a debate we shouldn’t need,” writes Gabrielle Bel­lot at Lit­er­ary Hub, and yet it’s one that is still “as impor­tant as ever.” The propo­si­tion before the two men—famed prophet­ic nov­el­ist of the black expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca and the con­ser­v­a­tive founder of the Nation­al Review—was this: “The Amer­i­can Dream is at the Expense of the Amer­i­ca Negro.”

The state­ment should not need defend­ing, Bald­win argued, because it is so obvi­ous­ly true. The wealth cre­at­ed by hun­dreds of years of slav­ery has passed down through gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies. So too has the pover­ty. These divi­sions have been stren­u­ous­ly main­tained by Jim Crow, redlin­ing, and racist polic­ing. “Prof­its from slav­ery,” write Stephen Smith and Kate Ellis at APM Reports, “helped fund some of the most pres­ti­gious schools in the North­east, includ­ing Har­vard, Colum­bia, Prince­ton and Yale,” which hap­pened to be Buckley’s alma mater and was found­ed by an actu­al slave trad­er.

Slave labor fund­ed, built, and main­tained near­ly every part of the for­ma­tive uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem in the ear­ly U.S., and built the wealth of many oth­er pow­er­ful insti­tu­tions. Bald­win says it is “awk­ward” to have to point out these facts. Rather than recite them, he per­son­al­izes, speak­ing, he says, as “a kind of Jere­mi­ah” in nam­ing crimes gone unre­dressed for too long: “I am stat­ing very seri­ous­ly, and this is not an over­state­ment. I picked the cot­ton, I car­ried it to the mar­ket, and I built the rail­roads under some­one else’s whip for noth­ing. For noth­ing…. The Amer­i­can soil is full of the corpses of my ances­tors. Why is my free­dom or my cit­i­zen­ship, or my right to live there, how is it con­ceiv­ably a ques­tion now?”

Buckley’s response drips with con­de­scen­sion and con­tempt. He begins with a stan­dard con­ser­v­a­tive line: deplor­ing the acts of a few “indi­vid­ual Amer­i­can cit­i­zens” who “per­pet­u­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion,” but deny­ing that his­toric, sys­temic racism still exists. He then cites “the fail­ure of the Negro com­mu­ni­ty itself to make cer­tain exer­tions, which were made by oth­er minor­i­ty groups dur­ing the Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence.” He damns an entire group of peo­ple with plat­i­tudes about hard work while also declar­ing loud­ly that race has noth­ing to do with it.

This contradiction—engaging in racist scape­goat­ing while claim­ing not to see race—was part of the strat­e­gy of “col­or­blind” con­ser­vatism the Nation­al Review adopt­ed after the pas­sage the Civ­il Rights Act. Pri­or to the ear­ly six­ties, how­ev­er, Buck­ley had been a stri­dent seg­re­ga­tion­ist who pub­licly defend­ed insti­tu­tion­al­ized white suprema­cy rather than claim­ing it had dis­ap­peared. In 1957, he wrote an edi­to­r­i­al titled “Why the South Must Pre­vail” and argued that white south­ern politi­cians must “take such mea­sures as are nec­es­sary to pre­vail, polit­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly” over black cit­i­zens.

Buck­ley had not fun­da­men­tal­ly changed in 1965, though he posi­tioned him­self as a mod­er­ate mid­dle ground between lib­er­als and seg­re­ga­tion­ists like Strom Thur­mond, whom he con­sid­ered crude. His posi­tion amounts to lit­tle more than a defense of dom­i­na­tion, couched in what his­to­ri­an Joshua Tait calls the “racial inno­cence of intel­lec­tu­al con­ser­vatism” that delib­er­ate­ly ignores or dis­torts his­tor­i­cal truths and present real­i­ties. “Bristling at Baldwin’s claim that the Amer­i­can econ­o­my was built by the unre­mu­ner­at­ed labour of Black peo­ple,” writes Joss Har­ri­son, “Buck­ley cries: ‘My great grand­par­ents worked too!’”

The debate “now stands as one of the arche­typ­al artic­u­la­tions of the divid­ing line between US pro­gres­sives and con­ser­v­a­tives on ques­tions of race, jus­tice and his­to­ry,” writes Aeon, who bring us the full ver­sion above with restored audio by Adam D’Arpino. Buck­ley responds to Baldwin’s pow­er­ful rhetoric with insults, out of con­text “facts and fig­ures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speak­ing voice.” He pro­pos­es that one road to equal­i­ty lies in dis­en­fran­chis­ing poor South­ern whites as well as black cit­i­zens.

Buck­ley dis­plays a “com­plete igno­rance of the prob­lems faced by black Amer­i­cans in soci­ety,” writes Har­ri­son. Such igno­rance, “allied with pow­er,” Bald­win said else­where, con­sti­tutes “the most fero­cious ene­my jus­tice can have.” For Bald­win, Buck­ley’s atti­tude sim­ply con­firmed the “great shock,” that he mov­ing­ly describes in his debate state­ment, “around the age of five, or six, or sev­en, to dis­cov­er that the flag to which you have pledged alle­giance, along with every­body else, has not pledged alle­giance to you.”

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why James Baldwin’s Writ­ing Stays Pow­er­ful: An Art­ful­ly Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

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

James Bald­win: Wit­ty, Fiery in Berke­ley, 1979

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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    The intro sounds like “The Ones Who Walk Away from Ome­las” by Ursu­la K. Le Guin

  • J S says:

    Buck­ley does very lit­tle to address the motion.

  • Jean SmilingCoyote says:

    Thank you VERY much for mak­ing this avail­able!
    The title of the motion is giv­en at the end of the 1st para­graph. I think there is an error in your tran­scrip­tion. I think the penul­ti­mate word is in fact “Amer­i­can” rather than “Amer­i­ca”. It pre­cedes “Negro” as an adjec­tive. It is unfor­tu­nate that some of the speak­ers in the video did not enun­ci­ate some of their words clear­ly enough. There is also the fact that the let­ter “n” both ends “Amer­i­can” and begins “Negro”.
    Will you please cor­rect this spelling error?

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