By Aidan Lee
On Oct. 26, 1965, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley debated at the Cambridge Union debating society for and against the following motion: “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
Each man was allotted 15 minutes to make his argument. Although both speakers exhibited rhetorical mastery, Baldwin, a writer and social critic, won the debate by a tremendous margin. Baldwin secured a standing ovation from the Union, a phenomenon that the narrating host claimed he “had not seen in the Union . . . in all the years [he had] known it.”
William F. Buckley, a popular conservative intellectual, argued that African-American communities were responsible for actively pursuing their own opportunities for societal advancement, which were available to all Americans on equal terms. According to Seneca Vaught, a historian at Kennesaw State University, Buckley failed to connect with his audience, despite his intent to “appeal to an imagined common Albion ancestry, and reason with descendants of a common cultural heritage.” Though this had been “a tactic that worked among conservative and segregationist audiences in the United States,” Vaught said it fell flat in Cambridge.
Part of Baldwin’s rhetorical genius, on the other hand, was his ability to transition forcefully between the second-person:
In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.
To the first-person:
I am speaking very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.
Throughout his speech, Baldwin emphasized the differences between black and white Americans. A key concept in his argument was conflicting “systems of reality.” In other words, the sets of beliefs people held were specific to an individual’s background, ethnicity and cultural identity.
Buckley argued that African American communities were responsible for actively pursuing their own opportunities for societal advancement, which were available to all Americans on equal terms. Vaught posits that “Buckley ascribed racial problems to personal behavior that could be easily remedied by individual action.” Baldwin, on the other hand, crafted a more subtle narrative that reconciled black and white America on the level of ideals and values (that all should be treated equally by law, for example), but also illuminated the divide between perceived ideals and practical realities. Societal systems and structures are constructed with certain goals or ideals in mind, but deeply ingrained individual beliefs about race, for example, undeniably influenced how individuals operating these structures interacted with perceived racial or cultural ‘others’. Today, when the mistreatment of African Americans by members of law enforcement continues to be a daily, televised reality, Baldwin’s words on systemic racism resonate with just as much force as they did fifty years ago.
Backstory caught up with host Brian Balogh, Compton Professor at the Miller Center and the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, to gain some insight into this historic debate, and how its message lives on in contemporary discussions about race.
Q: Did Buckley and Baldwin address each other, or the topic, directly and adequately?
A: Yes, I think both men addressed the topic well, albeit arriving at very different conclusions about it. Baldwin went first and couldn’t address Buckley, but Buckley made Baldwin the centerpiece of his answer in many ways. One key point Buckley made was that some African Americans are indeed treated equally, witnessed by the fact that James Baldwin was the toast of the town, and one of the most popular speakers on college campuses. So Buckley used Baldwin as evidence to demonstrate his larger point: that African Americans were not uniformly discriminated against, with Baldwin being one of those who wasn’t.
Q: How was this debate different in style, and substance, from domestic debates between presidential candidates and politicians at other points in the 20th century?
A: If we start with most recent debates, including all the presidential debates starting with John F. Kennedy, each of the debaters in the Baldwin-Buckley debate took a lot more time to make their point, elaborate, and cover far fewer questions. They dealt with one question, whereas all modern presidential debates deal with a whole range of questions. The ratio of time spent answering the question has clearly narrowed. Many more questions, far shorter answers.
Q: Are there echoes of Baldwin and Buckley in contemporary debates, and especially in this election season?
A: Yes. I think one of the key themes that Baldwin stresses is that African Americans are invisible. While that situation is changing, and while the contributions of African Americans have been better understood, I believe that the discussion about race relations between police and the community continues to ignore the basic humanity of African Americans — especially African American males. It’s also interesting that the contemporary conservative response is quite different from Buckley’s position. Buckley’s position in 1965 was that African Americans were better off than most people around the world, whereas today, the conservative response to Hillary Clinton’s effort to reach out to African Americans, is that “life is hell” for them. It’s odd that conservatives are stressing how bad things are for African Americans, at least in the first presidential debate, whereas Clinton is stressing empowerment and the fact that not all African American communities are “hell,” though there is still work to be done.
Learn more about the history of debate in America by listening to BackStory’s episode, “Fighting Words.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist