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Thu, 02.18.1965

James Baldwin, and William F. Buckley Debate Race in America

James Baldwin William F. Buckley

*On this date in 1965, The University of Cambridge held a debate over race in America.

The packed auditorium was hushed and witnessed Black author James Baldwin and William Buckley, a white-American conservative. The two men argued the motion, "The American Dream: Is it at the expense of the American Negro?"  

Here was a clash of opposed titans: In one corner was Baldwin, short, slender, almost androgynous with his still-youthful face, voice carrying the faintly cosmopolitan inflections he’d had for years. He was the debate’s radical, an esteemed writer unafraid to volcanically condemn white supremacy and the antiblack racism of conservative and liberal Americans alike. In the other corner was Buckley, tall, light-skinned, hair tightly combed and jaw stiff, his words chiseled with his signature transatlantic accent.

If Baldwin—the verbal virtuoso who wrote moving portraits of black America and about life as a queer expatriate in Europe stood for America’s need to change, Buckley positioned himself as the reasonable moderate who resisted the social transformations that civil-rights leaders called for, desegregation most of all.  There is a timeless element to this episode. The topic is perhaps America’s toughest in the 21st century. In 2019, political science professor Nicholas Buccola of Linfield College was so taken with the skirmish that he wrote a book about it: "The Fire is Upon Us."

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