Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

William F. Buckley Jr. vs. James Baldwin: Debating Race in America

William F. Buckley Jr. and James Baldwin (Baldwin: Wikimedia Commons)
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, by Nicholas Buccola (Princeton University Press, 496 pp., $29.95)

Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is upon Us professes to tell the story of how two of the most consequential postwar American intellectuals responded to the civil-rights revolution. Its major limitation is that it remains a snapshot in time. Much of the action precedes the famous debate in which Baldwin and Buckley engaged before the Cambridge Union in 1965 and essentially ends with their summations.

In addition to omitting later events that characterized a revolution and a movement that continue, the book does Baldwin justice but sells Buckley short. At the time of their debate, Baldwin had more or less secured his place in the annals of American letters. Buckley was on the verge of establishing his. The man whom those who prepare and read this magazine know as “WFB” was living proof that people can and do revise their ways of thinking after the age of 40. They will also recall that he had remaining to him after his exchange with Baldwin at Cambridge four decades in which to do it. While Baldwin also had years to go after the debate, as Buccola would have it, he had little need to alter many of his views, as they were nearly perfect to begin with. Buccola does refer to the novelist’s “growth” but leaves it to his readers to figure out where and how it happened. In his view, Buckley remained the same bigot and apologist for racism that Baldwin thought him in the 1950s and early to mid 1960s.

On February 18, 1965, at Cambridge, before an audience of approximately 700, most of them British, the two Americans debated the proposition “The American dream is at the expense of the Negro.” Baldwin spoke in favor; Buckley against. BBC broadcast the event live. Other radio and television stations subsequently ran the program, and newspapers around the world printed excerpts.

In the debate, Buckley did not defend segregation per se. Instead he took a different tack. He insisted that the United States had made considerable and steady progress in broadening opportunities for African Americans. He suggested that Baldwin’s success was a tribute to the strength of the American dream and urged Baldwin to encourage young African Americans to partake in these new possibilities.

Baldwin insisted that he was not a “ward of America,” not “an object of missionary charity,” but “one of the people who built this country.” He warned that if the United States continued to deny African Americans, whose forebears were of both races, participation in America’s success, they by their very presence would wreck it. The audience voted Baldwin the winner of the exchange, 544 to 164.

Days before the two squared off, a series of protests called by Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference took place in Selma, Ala., and other locales throughout the state. Police and white vigilantes responded with massive beatings and incarcerations of protesters. On March 7, weeks after the debate and the very day the New York Times published an edited transcript of it, state troopers charged into a crowd of 500 to 600 marchers who were hoping to complete a 50-mile journey between Selma and Montgomery, the state capital, where they would demand their right as American citizens to vote.

Buccola delivers a highly readable and accurate account of what Baldwin and Buckley said at Cambridge, as well as a succinct summary of the two men’s philosophies — at least up to the time of their exchange. While he does quote Buckley later expressing regret that he did not endorse civil-rights and voting-rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 (“I once believed that we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong. Federal intervention was necessary”), he does not believe that Buckley ever in his heart recanted his earlier views supporting racial segregation and the racial superiority of whites, as voiced in editorials he penned during National Review’s early years. Buccola fails to cite other of Buckley’s expressed regrets over his earlier stated views: his wish that NR “had taken a more transcendent position, which might have been done by advocating civil rights with appropriate safeguards” or his lamentation that conservatives had not been “more forceful in their advocacy of civil rights in the 1960s.”

“Racist,” “liar,” and “coward,” Buccola tells us, are words that came to Baldwin’s mind when he thought of Buckley. Obviously, Buccola thinks of Buckley the same way. In his acknowledgments, he informs readers that he came from a conservative family and, in his younger days, participated in Cato Institute summer camps and held an internship at the Heritage Foundation. Buccola assures his readers that his “study of history and political science” led him to “grow up from conservatism.”

So much for breaking new ground, let alone objectivity. Were Buckley able to read this admission, he might question the efficacy of conservative-oriented leadership-training programs. He might also recant advice he gave young admirers to read the introduction to his God and Man at Yale and skip the rest. Buckley might even pick up where he left off in that book, extending his examination of the teaching of economics and religion to include that of history and political science.

Buccola is more familiar with Baldwin’s total body of work than with Buckley’s. His book suffers from his failure to compensate for that weakness. In the course of 482 pages, readers discern that Buckley’s role in the book is to act as a foil against which Baldwin’s brilliance is allowed to shine.

Born 15 months apart, in New York City, the two writers could not have come from more different circumstances. Baldwin grew up in Harlem, then the largest African-American “ghetto” in the country. His stepfather was a day laborer and lay Pentecostal preacher, his mother, a housekeeper. Baldwin was quick to discern that residents of his community did not own most of the area’s assets and that African Americans had greater difficulty than whites in finding and retaining work and were paid considerably less than their white counterparts when they did. He also noticed that prices were higher in stores in his neighborhood than elsewhere. His family was acquainted with the all-white Home Relief bureau, which had to “declare” would-be welfare recipients “worthy” to receive benefits. Not surprisingly, whites were substantially more likely to be deemed so.

As a teenager, Baldwin came into direct contact with even more raw forms of racism. He and his companions could not understand what they had done to elicit the racial epithets whites threw their way. Nor could they comprehend why, in northern states, restaurants denied them service because of their race. Baldwin’s early experiences shaped his views about life, justice, and fairness.

Dubbed the “young mahster” by his oldest sister, Buckley grew up at “Great Elm,” a 47-acre estate in Sharon, Conn. His father, a self-made wildcat oilman, earned and lost more than one fortune before his namesake was born. His children regarded the elder Buckley’s modest origins as part of their heritage. In his Cambridge debate with Baldwin, Buckley made the point that his Irish forebears overcame poverty and prejudice to live the American dream.

Private tutors, coaches, music teachers, and instructors of all kinds frequented Buckley’s home until he went away to a nearby boarding school. His education and that of his siblings continued through dinner, as their father questioned them on a wide range of topics. Buckley’s father was the strongest influence in his life. Assured that he had the older man’s steadfast support, he seemed not to mind when he failed to receive it elsewhere. Self-assured, he seemed not to mind making the case for unpopular points of view, which he often did.

Baldwin was the oldest in a household of nine children; Buckley, the sixth-born of ten children. Religion played an important part in the lives of both during their childhoods. Baldwin cut his ties to religion as he grew older. Buckley, a devout Catholic, grew more religious as he aged. His faith helped cause him to doubt earlier views he had held on race.

Baldwin was not close to his stepfather, who was prone to bitterness and self-hatred (qualities Baldwin attributed to his having assimilated the same opinion of himself that his white superiors had of him). The budding writer found a father substitute in Beauford Delaney, an African-American artist who lived in Greenwich Village. A free spirit, Delaney, Buccola writes, “fueled” Baldwin’s “dreams that he might be able one day to do with his pen what Delaney did with a brush.” Other early influences on him were two teachers at P.S. 26, who encouraged him to apply to DeWitt Clinton High School, one of the city’s most selective public schools, which he then attended.

From their early days, both writers were extroverts. Buckley was pushed in this direction through interaction with his nine siblings and in debates. Baldwin showed an early “flair for the dramatic” at the pulpit as a junior minister. Both gravitated to literary pursuits. Baldwin edited the Magpie, a literary magazine at DeWitt Clinton. Buckley was editor in chief of the student newspaper at the Millbrook School and, later, chairman of the Yale Daily News.

Baldwin intended his writings to encourage African Americans to be assertive in demanding rights guaranteed them in the Constitution. Buckley saw his as rallying cries to fellow conservatives to move the center of political gravity in the United States rightward from the “liberal consensus” that defined the 1950s. That meant a reduced role for the federal government, lower marginal tax rates, and limited regulation, with most of the nation’s domestic agenda set by states and localities. The existential threat that the Soviet Union posed in the nuclear age to the United States, its allies, and its interests caused Buckley to abandon the isolationist sentiments he and his family shared between the two world wars.

To achieve his goals, Buckley advocated a realignment of the two major political parties along ideological lines, with liberals and conservatives facing off beneath two distinctive banners. He was convinced that a conservative majority existed that would, one day, be entrusted with the nation’s governance. And he was willing to wait, decades if necessary, for this vision to become reality.

With the civil-rights revolution cresting in the early 1960s, Baldwin was a natural to make the movement’s case at Cambridge. He was considered the second most famous and influential African American after Martin Luther King Jr. Norman Mailer (and many others) ranked Buckley the most important conservative in the public eye after Barry Goldwater. He seemed the perfect ideological opposite to Baldwin.

Buckley was best known as the founding editor of National Review. Launched in 1955, this “journal of fact and opinion” became the only northern-based and the sole intellectual journal that opposed the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which had declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” unconstitutional. NR also defended legal segregation in the American South. It opposed in the name of federalism (or “states’ rights”) presidential actions to integrate public schools in Little Rock (1957) and the state universities of Mississippi (1961) and Alabama (1963), as well as the civil-rights bills of 1957, 1960, and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Buckley opined not only that whites should continue to govern in the southern states (even where they did not constitute a majority) but also that whites deserved to rule because they were the more “advanced” race. His editorials made no allowance for what Baldwin considered a “conservative” argument for civil rights: the importance the nation’s founding documents awarded to individual rights, with their protection being a major responsibility of government.

Buckley’s colleague (and brother-in-law) Brent Bozell also found Buckley’s stand to be inconsistent with conservative orthodoxy. His dissent was threefold: that an ideology that venerated political institutions should not undermine respect for the courts, let alone condone lawbreaking; that adherents of the “strict constructionist” interpretation of the Constitution should not be cavalier in disregarding the text of the First, 14th, 15th, and other amendments; and that it was unconstitutional to deprive any group of Americans of their constitutional rights on the basis of race.

Had Buckley, as a “conservative” spokesman, chosen to come down on the pro-civil-rights side of the ledger, he would have found lots of “conservative” company. President Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, were both supporters of civil-rights legislation, and King had been particularly generous in his praise for Nixon. Other “conservatives” who took a similar view were Senate Republican leader William F. Knowland, his successor, Everett M. Dirksen, and scores of Republican senators and representatives. (Dirksen’s conservative credentials were such that Robert A. Taft and Barry Goldwater each asked him to place his name in nomination for president at a Republican National Convention.)

More had been at work in determining Buckley’s views on segregation and race in his earlier days than ideology. Like Baldwin, Buckley was greatly influenced by his early experiences. His parents, both southern-born, supported practices they had grown up with. While they did not favor integration, they were in accord with the noblesse oblige practices of the Bourbon Democrats, who governed much of the region from the end of Reconstruction to the post–World War II era. As practicing Catholics, they abhorred the Ku Klux Klan and sympathized with its victims.

On page 222 of his book, Buccola pleads that he could not find a single instance of Buckley’s exercising his self-appointed role as “tablet keeper” of his movement to purge it of racists and racism in the manner through which he had rid it of novelist Ayn Rand and the John Birch Society.

The first place Buccola might look would be Buckley’s appearance with George Wallace on Firing Line on January 24, 1968. Wallace was about to run for president on a third-party ticket. Buckley’s purpose in getting into the arena with him was to undermine the Alabama governor’s claim to be the true “conservative” in the race. Buckley declared Wallace a “phony conservative” who professed to believe in “states’ rights” when the beneficiaries of federal intervention were African Americans but who otherwise championed increased federal spending and intervention in both the economy and southern affairs, especially when it came to federal funding to Alabama.

“For the first time, I feel like a liberal,” Buckley blurted out as he rattled off instance after instance in which Wallace’s administration provided substandard treatment to African Americans. Buckley saw Wallace as a “welfare populist,” which to Buckley connoted a demagogic politician, who wrested political power away from the old Bourbons by appealing to the prejudices of poor southern whites against African Americans.

Buckley and his family were all too familiar with this breed. A favorite uncle termed them and their supporters “white trash.” Through fraud and intimidation, they had defeated Buckley’s grandfather as sheriff of Duval County, Texas. (Grandfather Buckley had built a substantial power base among Mexican Americans.)

As Wallace and his ilk increasingly came to epitomize southern politicians, Buckley’s columns showed a decided change in tone. Rather than oppose civil-rights measures on their substance, he warned southern moderates that the intransigence their leaders were showing and the violence they were encouraging, in the face of growing public sympathy for civil-rights advocates, would hasten the very federal intervention they so opposed. He hinted that, absent indigenous accommodation and compromise, southerners could not maintain support from those in other regions of the country.

A second place to which Buccola might turn is the trove of position papers Buckley released when he ran for mayor of New York City a few months after the Cambridge debate. The rationale for what he termed his “paradigmatic” candidacy was to offer conservative alternatives to shopworn approaches liberals had been applying to urban problems for at least a half century.

Ideas Buckley advanced on welfare, taxes, community policing, criminal justice, and “urban enterprise zones” (through which business owners received tax incentives to locate their enterprises in economically depressed areas and hire local residents) have since become boilerplate for conservatives and liberals alike. Buckley returned to these themes in Four Reforms, a book he later wrote and urged Ronald Reagan to read. Months after his exchange with Wallace, Buckley gave a warm endorsement to Senator Robert Kennedy’s proposals to redevelop the predominantly African-American Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. (Kennedy’s plan encompassed the very tax incentives and decentralization of services Buckley had proposed when he ran for mayor.) Another policy on which he and Kennedy agreed was on pressuring organized labor to end discriminatory practices that kept minority participation in apprenticeship programs to a minimum.

Not to be missed in this inquiry are the columns Buckley filed in 1969, after he had completed an extensive tour of urban America at the invitation of Whitney Young, the president of the National Urban League. Buckley came away from the experience with a deepened understanding of the estrangement African-American youths felt from mainstream American society and of the almost universal distrust so many inner-city residents had of the police. Buckley described the corruption he had seen in urban areas — which often came at the expense of African Americans — and the selective harassment of African Americans that he had witnessed.

He wrote admirably of the charm, street smarts, and idealism of young community leaders he had encountered, and was impressed by their efforts to improve schools and attract capital to their neighborhoods. “Anyone expecting to hear better speech, better-organized ideas, greater enthusiasm, in the graduate schools of the Ivy League, has a pleasant surprise coming,” he wrote.

On January 13, 1970, 39 years before Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States, Buckley published in Look magazine a piece titled “Why We Need a Black President in 1980.” Such an event, he noted, would confer upon African Americans a reassurance and social distinction similar to what Roman Catholics had felt after the election of John F. Kennedy. It would be “welcome tonic” for the white soul, he added. Buckley’s thoughts harkened back to Whittaker Chambers’s description of the African-American experience in a 1946 Time cover story about opera contralto Marian Anderson. Buckley wrote that Chambers had called African Americans “the most man-despised and God-obsessed people in the history of the world,” who “on coming to this strange land . . . had struck their tuning fork, and the sorrow songs, the spirituals, were born.”

Such sentiments in no way resembled those he advanced in an infamous 1957 NR editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” While Buccola’s book is a worthy and welcome addition to the Baldwin literature, those seeking insight into Buckley on matters pertaining to race will have to look elsewhere, perhaps beginning with the writings of the great man himself.

This article appears as “Buckley vs. Baldwin” in the December 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Alvin S. Felzenberg — Mr. Felzenberg is the author of A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. and The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game.

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