On February 18, 1965 at Cambridge University, James Baldwin, the African American novelist and essayist, debated William F. Buckley Jr., the editor and founder of the National Review, on the motion: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Together, Baldwin and Buckley represented opposite ends of the spectrum on the race issue.

Since returning to the United States in 1957 after living many years in France, Baldwin had become one of the most famous voices on U.S. race relations. The publication in 1963 of his The Fire Next Time, a fiery indictment of the structural racism that held African Americans back, brought him national acclaim at the height of the civil rights movement.

Through the conservative National Review, Buckley had opposed the enforcement of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which barred racial segregation of public schools, the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He had also criticized Baldwin’s views and called him an “eloquent menace.”

Baldwin Wins the Debate

The occasion at the Cambridge Union Society, the oldest continuously running debating society in the world, marked the first time that Baldwin had participated in a formal debate. As an undergraduate at Yale, Buckley had starred on the debate team. Each debater was given 15 minutes to make their case. Baldwin argued for the motion and Buckley spoke against it. Going first, Baldwin gave a rousing sermon to nearly 1,000 Cambridge students that laid out his case in stark historical terms.

“I picked the cotton,” he said. “The Southern oligarchy was created by my labor, my sweat, the violation of my women, the murder of my children—all this in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

When Baldwin finished his speech, he received a standing ovation. For his part, Buckley pressed African Americans not to embrace the cynicism and despair espoused by Baldwin. “What should James Baldwin be doing other than telling us to renounce our civilization?” he said. “He should be addressing his own people and urging them to take advantage of those opportunities which do exist.”

The members of the Union voted 544 to 164 in favor of Baldwin’s arguments.

Buckley, Baldwin React

Buckley later called his face off in Cambridge with Baldwin the most satisfying debate that he ever had. “It was planned as an orgy of anti-Americanism,” he said in a 1968 Esquire interview. “But I didn’t give one gaw-damn inch! They were infuriated. I lost four to one. But I walked out of there tall so far as self-respect goes.”

In a less formal setting a few weeks after the Cambridge event on David Susskind’s TV show, Open End, Baldwin and Buckley had a second debate. This time Buckley defeated Baldwin by getting under his skin. Baldwin told a reporter years later. “To my eternal dishonor, I cooled it, I drew back and I lost the debate. I should have beat him over the head with the coffee cup.”

Buckley's Appeal to White Working Class

In late 1965, Buckley found a sympathetic audience for his views on race when he ran for mayor of New York City. In the campaign, he espoused policies that reinforced many things that he had said in the debates with Baldwin. He proposed quarantining drug addicts and relocating chronic welfare cases outside of the city. According to Sam Lubell, then a prominent New York pollster, Buckley was attracting white working class voters by “giving emotional voice to many racial discontents among white voters.”

Buckley was never a serious candidate to win the New York mayoral race, but his campaign strategy became a part of the playbook of future conservative white politicians.

“The phenomenon of Buckley’s appeal to primarily white, working-class voters persists,” Alvin S. Felzenberg, a University of Pennsylvania historian and the author of A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in a 2018 article

Continued Resonance of the 1965 Debate

In the aftermath of the murders in 2020 of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, Baldwin’s critique of American society gained new resonance.

"Baldwin's voice as a novelist, as an essayist, as a critic of the hypocrisies of the nation and its core contradictions, speaks to this moment in ways that few other writers can," Harvard historian Khalil Muhammad told NPR in 2020 when he debated David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, over whether the premise of the 1965 debate remained true.

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