The poet and the patrician

Stephen Parkinson reviews The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F Buckley Jr, and the debate over race in America, by Nicholas Buccola


In January 1965, Peter Fullerton received the sort of telephone call most presidents of the Cambridge Union dream of. Fullerton, a history undergraduate, already had the privilege of presiding over the famous debating society’s 150th anniversary; now an opportunity arose to host an event which would ensure his term would be remembered for decades to come.

The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F Buckley Jr, and the debate over race in America by Nicholas Buccola, Princeton University Press, £25

A publicist from Corgi Books rang to see whether the Union might like to host James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the American civil rights movement then at the height of his international renown, while he visited the UK to promote his third novel, Another Country. Boldly, Fullerton demurred: as the Union was a debating society, it would not be appropriate to host Baldwin for a promotional speech, but it would be delighted to arrange a debate in which he could pit his arguments against a suitable adversary. To Baldwin’s credit — and despite the protestations of his agent, who advised him strongly against taking part — he agreed.

The challenge was to find a motion “which reflected the themes of his writing” but which would allow for a genuine debate. Fortunately, Fullerton had read and admired Baldwin’s three novels and several of his essays (not a boast many Union presidents could make, one suspects). It was from one of the latter that he found inspiration.

In the Fire Next Time (1963), Baldwin had warned that “the Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and bring down the curtain on the American dream.” From this, Fullerton and Baldwin’s team settled on the motion that “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”

The next challenge was to find a suitable opponent. Fullerton fired off invitations to several high-profile opponents of civil rights, including Senators Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater, who had three months earlier been trounced by Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. Unable to entice any of them over the Atlantic, he was assisted by his friend and fellow student Michael Tugendhat (the future High Court judge and father of the Conservative MP Tom), who thought someone he had met through a family friend would fit the bill.

Though not as well known outside the United States as Baldwin was at this time, William F. Buckley Jr had established himself as America’s leading conservative polemicist, and had been a key cheerleader for Goldwater’s candidacy as editor of National Review. As luck would have it, he was in Europe at the time skiing, and jumped at the chance to square up against the man he had just described as “the Number-1 America-hater, James Baldwin”.

The stage was thus set for “an intellectual clash for the ages” — pitting “the poet of the civil rights revolution” against “the godfather of American conservatism”. The Union’s chamber was packed on 18 February 1965. More than 700 students squeezed in, taking up every available space on the benches and floor. Hundreds more watched via screens in overspill rooms elsewhere in the building, while a newly-elected Tory MP, Norman St John-Stevas, a former president of the Union, provided commentary for the BBC, who broadcast the debate.

The footage can still be seen online and makes electrifying viewing. The two principal speakers could not have been more different, despite being born just a few months and miles apart in New York, 40 years earlier. Baldwin grew up in the poverty of the Harlem ghetto with his mother and a stepfather who was the son of slaves; Buckley came from a family of “old money” who had fought in the Confederate Army and grew up in the idyll of a 47-acre estate in Connecticut.

Their oratorical style was as different as their backgrounds: Buckley had established himself as “star debater” at Yale, and gave an animated performance, immaculately turned out in his dinner jacket and addressing himself to every corner of the chamber. Baldwin stood half a foot shorter and a great deal more motionless in his plain blue lounge suit, and had no experience in this style of debating. Yet his calm intensity, and the poetry and passion of his words, made his the more powerful speech by far. The Union audience hung on his every word:

“In the case of an American Negro born in that glittering republic, and in the moment you are born — since you don’t know any better — every stick and stone, and every face, is white, and since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of five or six or seven to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and that although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”

When the House divided at 10.41pm — the votes counted by tellers including a young Simon Schama — the motion was carried, 544 to 164.

It is this dramatic encounter — certainly one of the most important ever held at the Cambridge Union — which Nicholas Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College, Oregon, has made the centrepiece of this engaging and thoughtful book.

As he points out, the book “is about far more than the debate itself” — it is “the story of how two of the most consequential postwar American intellectuals responded to the civil rights revolution”. It is part a parallel intellectual biography, part a history of the struggle for black freedom in the United States. Buccola recounts the build-up to, and aftermath of, the debate with all the gripping drama of a heavyweight boxing match — yet it was only a small part of the decades-long debate between two men and the ideas and ideals they represented. His book places the evening in its full, harrowing context. At around the time Baldwin and Buckley entered the Union chamber, a crowd was forming in Marion, Alabama to protest against the arrest of James Orange, a 22-year-old civil rights activist barely older than the students in the Cambridge audience.

As the debate unfolded, this crowd was set upon by law enforcement officers. Reporters on the scene were held back by a local segregationist mob, but the New York Times reported that “Negroes could be heard screaming and loud whacks rang through the square.” Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old deacon, took refuge from the violence in a nearby café: state troopers followed him in, and beat him, his mother, and his 82-year-old grandfather with clubs. He was shot in the stomach, and died from his wounds a few days later.

Three days after the Cambridge debate, Baldwin received a telephone call breaking the news that Malcolm X had been killed.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a history of the Cambridge Union, which naturally included this seismic debate. But I learned so much more about it from Buccola’s engrossing and thoroughly researched account.

Just days before their clash, for instance, Baldwin was still convalescing from a severe fever, and Buckley’s wife had a terrible skiing accident which broke her leg in five places. A dispute about the unauthorised publication of a (flawed) transcript of the debate in the New York Times ended with both men being paid $400 by the contrite newspaper.

Most fascinating of all was to see how long and how deeply Buckley stewed over his defeat — not just in correspondence with Tugendhat afterwards, but returning to it a number of times in articles and memoirs down the years. By 1968, he had decided that the debate had been “planned as an orgy of anti-Americanism, a kind of intellectual masturbation” and a game he had been invited to go along with: “But I didn’t give them one gaw-damn-inch!”

Buccola is forensic and fair- minded in his treatment of both men, but Buckley comes out of it very poorly, as the author exposes the many contortions he pulled, the distasteful company he kept, and the many blind eyes he turned to barbarity in his lifelong quest to defend the American “civilisation” he believed was his inheritance.

In an infamous 1957 essay, “Why the South Must Prevail”, Buckley argued that the white population was “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally … because, for the time being, it is th e advanced race.” It is hard to conclude that he intended this “time being” to endure anything other than indefinitely.

This is not a pleasant or edifying conception of conservatism. Introducing the 1965 broadcast, St John-Stevas pointed out that Buckley is, “I must stress, a conservative in the American sense.” The narrow purpose of Buckley’s credo was set out clearly in the Class Day oration he delivered at his graduation from Yale in 1950. Despite “the vast deficiencies in American life — the suffering, the in- justice, the want — we must nevertheless spend our greatest efforts, it seems to me, in preserving the framework that supports the vaster bounties that make our country an oasis of freedom and prosperity.”

Similarly, in a 1961 essay, “Desegregation: Will It Work?”, he argued that “there is no present solution” to the race problem in the South from a conservative point of view: “some problems are insoluble.” This is not conservatism , it is defeatism—and for many, it provided a mask for something darker.

Buckley was an unapologetic elitist, unabashed by the racist company he kept in defending the privilege to which he had been born. This was brilliantly exposed by an intervention from the floor during his speech at Cambridge — one of the facets of Union debating which so often lay bare the posturing and the flaws of speakers’ arguments. Challenged by one of the few American students in the audience to “let them vote in Mississippi”, Buckley revealed the extent of his disdainful elitism:

“I think actually what is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are voting.”

Buried at the end of the book, Buccola tells us that he writes as a former conservative whose views have been changed by his study of history, particularly the American civil rights struggle.

Yet, in a stimulating epilogue, he provides solace to those on the right who rightly deplore many of the things Buckley espoused. Baldwin’s “ultimate indictment of Buckley might be the one that would sting him the most: that he was not a true conservative, or if he was, he was devoted to con- serving the wrong things.” Indeed, Baldwin him- self suggested that “I might even be described as a conservative, in terms of the things I think about and want to see honoured and made viable for people’s lives.”

Baldwin’s was a nobler, more generous conservatism, motivated by the proposition that “all men are the sons of God” — even those whose minds had been poisoned by bigotry. Whereas Buckley held the white supremacists with whom he allied himself in private disdain, Baldwin showed them public empathy and moral concern, not least in his speech at the Cambridge Union:

“They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge and consolation which is like a heavenly revelation: at least they are not black. Now I suggest that of all the terrible things that can happen to a human being that is one of the worst.”

He was a worthy winner of the debate that evening — and his are the ideas which deserve to win still.

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