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.
James Baldwin, William F. Buckley,
Jr., and the 1965 Cambridge Debate
Daniel Robert McClure
The 1965 debate at Cambridge University between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley,
Jr., posed the question: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the Expense of the
American Negro?” Within the contours of the debate, Baldwin and Buckley wrestled with the
ghosts of settler colonialism and slavery in a nation founded on freedom and equality.
Framing the debate within the longue durée, this essay examines the deep cultural currents
related to the American racial paradox at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Underscoring the changing language of white resistance against black civil rights, the
essay argues that the Baldwin and Buckley debate anticipated the ways the U.S. would
address racial inequality in the aftermath of the civil rights era and the dawn of
neoliberalism in the 1970s.
Greeley’s analysis of the nascent post-secular turn shared important
features with the work of the post-war Jewish thinker Will Herberg. A former Marxist,
Herberg spent the 1940s and most of the 1950s in the orbit of the Protestant theologian and
ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr before ending up as the religion editor of WilliamF. Buckley,
Jr’s conservative National Review . Through those years, he worked to bring
themes from Niebuhr’s writings into American Jewish thought, while adding the
existentialist tenor of figures such
–52; Backhouse, Founder of Modern Economics.
WilliamF. Buckley, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of
‘Academic Freedom’ (Washington, DC: Gateway Regnery, 2002). The first
edition was 1951. The textbooks he attacked included those by Morgan, Tarshis and
Samuelson. He also attacked teachers in other disciplines, including sociology, for failing
to promote traditional Christianity.
Ibid., p. 101
. 192. Even though they may be lacking in a specific
national agenda, the right-wing American pundit WilliamF. Buckley has also attacked
all those who label as anti-Semitic any and all who criticise Israel. This has made
Buckley question whether ‘the shadow of the Holocaust has been made to stretch too far
in contemporary polemics’. Buckley divides Jews who discuss the Holocaust into two
groups: ‘There are Jews who continue to fear that the fires that lit the Holocaust might
one day be rekindled. But there are also Jews who, comfortable with the protocols built