James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and the Civil Rights
Born in New York City only fifteen months apart, the Harlem-raised James Baldwin
and the privileged William F. Buckley, Jr. could not have been more different,
but they both rose to the height of American intellectual life during the civil
rights movement. By the time they met in February 1965 to debate race and the
American Dream at the Cambridge Union, Buckley—a founding father of the
American conservative movement—was determined to sound the alarm about a
man he considered an “eloquent menace.” For his part, Baldwin
viewed Buckley as a deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness
of the American soul. The stage was set for an epic confrontation that pitted
Baldwin’s call for a moral revolution in race relations against
Buckley’s unabashed elitism and implicit commitment to white supremacy.
In this article I introduce readers to the story at the heart of my new book
about Baldwin and Buckley, The Fire Is Upon Us.