James Baldwin (14:04 - 38:02) debates William F. Buckley (39:26 – 52:51)The Riverbends Channel

Fifty years ago today the eminent African-American essayist and social critic James Baldwin faced off arch-conservative William F. Buckley in an historic debate over civil rights. In one of the most important clashes in the history of the Cambridge Union Society, and possibly even of the Civil Rights Movement itself, the pair debated the motion "has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?" before an audience of Cambridge students on 18th February 1965. 

Dr Douglas Field from Manchester University, who is publishing a book on James Baldwin with Oxford University Press later this year, described to Varsity how the clash came at “a crucial moment in transatlantic racial politics, not least because the debate occurs shortly before the assassination of Malcolm X." Referring to the confrontation in the Union Chamber, he pointed to how Baldwin “refuses to accept pity; he exposes the hypocrisies of liberalism and he tears the architects of segregation asunder." At the end of his speech to the Union Baldwin declared that until it was accepted that “I am not a ward of America” but instead that “I am one of the people who built the country – until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream” (37:33).

Baldwin’s essay Fire Next Time, published in 1963, had already become a key cultural and political text of the African-American Civil Rights Movement by the time of the debate. That same year his face appeared on the cover of Time, the magazine proclaiming that “there is not another writer who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in the North and South."

"By 1965, James Baldwin was the most eloquent voice of the Civil Rights Movement" – Dr Douglas Fieldwikicommons

William F. Buckley, founder of the right-wing National Review and opponent of desegregation, responded to Baldwin with a chilling speech of his own. “It is the case that seven-tenths of the average white’s income in the United States is equal to the entire income of the average Negro. But my great-grandparents worked hard. I do not know of anything which has ever been created without the expense of something” (43:54).

Eight months before the debate US President Johnson signed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act into law with Martin Luther King by his sideWhite House Press Office

In trying to explain why there were only four hundred more African-American doctors in 1960 (3,900) than in 1900 (3,500), Buckley asked “is this because there were no opportunities?”, to which he responded “no”, for “there are a great many medical schools which by no means practice discrimination”. Instead he blamed “the failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions which were made by other minority groups in the American experience” (50:44).

The 1965 motion was won decidedly in favour of Baldwin, 544 students voted to pass it, although 164 Union members voted against it, siding with Buckley. Far from being resolved, however, the question of the compatibility of the ‘American dream’ with the status of African-Americans still rages on into the twenty-first century. This coming Michaelmas the History Faculty and the Cambridge Union Society will collaborate in commemoration of this historic moment with a slightly reworded debate. Dr Nicholas Guyatt, who is involved in organising the event, told Varsity that it will focus on “the issues of racial equality and civil rights, which seem so urgent once more after the police killings in Ferguson, Missouri and New York last year."