September 15, 2019
William F. Buckley Jr. vs. James Baldwin: A racial showdown on the American dreamBreaking News
tags: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, intellectual history, Racial History
Baldwin and Buckley were almost too perfect as sparring partners. They were about the same age and grew up in large families less than 100 miles from one another — Baldwin in the “ghetto” of New York’s Harlem neighborhood and Buckley in a mansion with dozens of rooms in Sharon, Ct. Both hit success as writers in their 20s and were regarded as the most erudite thinkers in their respective milieus.
By 1965, Buckley was the editor in chief of the conservative magazine he had founded, National Review. And Baldwin was a highly praised writer of novels, plays and essays with a new book, “Another Country,” soon to be released in paperback in the U.K. He was at the height of his stardom.
But that January, Baldwin was also recovering from a serious viral infection in the South of France. As a U.K. book tour was being planned for the next month, his agent warned the publisher’s press guy not to plan too much, for the already slight man was still weak.
The publicist ignored him, Buccola wrote, filling nearly every minute of the tour with events. And he had a very big idea — a debate at the famed Cambridge Union. Malcolm X had spoken at Oxford weeks before to much ado, and the publicist hoped to repeat that success.
The student organizers set about finding a worthy speaker to challenge Baldwin, and began inviting segregationist senators. All turned them down.
Then they asked Buckley, who was conveniently already in Europe. His wife had broken her leg in a skiing accident, and Buckley was tending to her bedside in Switzerland. But, perhaps tempted by the prospect of exercising his college-debate skills, he decided he could leave her briefly for an evening of argument.
A week before the debate, Baldwin’s agent caught wind of the idea and sent a blunt cable to the publicist: “Have advised Baldwin strongly against participating in debate with Buckley. Please cancel it.”
It’s unclear why or how, Buccola wrote, but that order was ignored, and the show simply went on.
The New York Times carried an item on the “wild applause” for Baldwin the next day. And, a few weeks later, it reprinted both men’s speeches nearly in full. It was March 7, 1965, the same day an Alabama sheriff attacked peaceful protesters in Selma, Ala., in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”