The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and the Debate over Race in America

By Nicholas Buccola

Princeton University Press | 496pgs

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Nicholas Buccola

Historian Nicholas Buccola, author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, dissects the significance of the televised debate between leading conservative William F. Buckley and civil rights spokesman James Baldwin before a packed audience on February 18, 1965 at the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England. In his book, The Fire Is Upon Us, he portrays the two prominent figures from different economic and cultural backgrounds speaking for two contrasting political views dividing the country.

Widely publicized, the BBC televised the event. The topic was very timely and provocative: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Other key markets in radio and television featured large segments from the program. The stage was set for an unprecedented media occasion that would focus international attention on the major societal dilemmas of race and prejudice.

Buccola, the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College in Oregon, adds sufficient context to define the men and their respective backgrounds. Much was made of Baldwin and Buckley being born 15 months apart in New York City, in situations of want and plenty. Baldwin spent his Harlem childhood, dreaming of better days, while his stepfather toiled as a day laborer and his mother kept house for some white folks. The boy wrapped himself in religion, but quickly fell under the spell of the creative arts.

Whereas Baldwin grappled with poverty, Buckley grew up in wealth at “Great Elm,” a 47-acre estate in Sharon, Connecticut, under the supervision of his father. His father was a self-made wildcat oilman, guaranteeing his brood a life of privilege. Buckley, of Southern roots, was a Catholic, yet he distrusted FDR’s New Deal and protested America joining World War II. Also, he was a pal to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. His wife shared his values, believing whites were intellectually superior to blacks. The junior Buckley inherited the racist values of his parents.

Baldwin, however, found emotional and creative support from his teachers at P.S. 26, pushing him to attend DeWitt Clinton, one of the city’s elite schools. He was encouraged by Beauford Delaney, a Black artist living in Greenwich Village and later edited the school’s literary magazine. Through his Village visits, he also met some influential writers and editors of such publications as The New Leader, The Nation, and Commentary, putting his byline in serious markets.

In 1946, Buckley was a student at Yale, becoming an effective debater and writer. He pursued his education as a conservative principle, writing: “…to enhance our devotion to the good in what we have, to reinforce our allegiance to our principles, to convince us that our outlook is positive: that the retention of the best features of this way of life is the most enlightened and noble of goals.”

Democracy summoned Buckley, for he joined the CIA in 1951 and was stationed in Mexico City. When he returned to the U.S., he wrote a book with his Yale buddy, L. Brent Bozell, defending McCarthy. In 1955, he founded National Review, the “journal of fact and opinion,” which opposed the Brown v. Board of Education anti-segregation decision. It also defended Jim Crow policies in the South, while attacking the validity of the civil right bills of 1957, 1960, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He believed whites must rule since they were the more sophisticated race.

Buckley supported Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s concept of racial equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.” He was too civilized to support the dark corpses idea.

By the time of the debate, both Baldwin and Buckley had risen to renown during the bloody days of the civil rights struggle. Buckley saw Baldwin as “an eloquent menace.” In turn, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a “deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul.”

That year, Americans watched the violent resistance of the authorities during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the Watts riots, so the stage was set. The Cambridge organizers, wanting to do honor to the prestigious debate hall, wanted to get Strom Thurmond or Barry Goldwater to spar with Baldwin, but eventually settled on Buckley, who loved the media attention.

The architecture of Buccola’s book consists of a fairly detailed summary of both men’s careers, glimpses of the significant historical events, and a blow-by-blow account of the verbal conflict worthy of the late fight commentator Howard Cosell. Both men staggered the other with ideas, images and concepts.

Buccola describes Baldwin’s various body gestures, the many facial expressions, and the eye rolling in disgust for his opponent’s academic rhetoric. When he gets in his first licks, using his preacher’s spiel, he condemns the current form of American democracy that denies any notion of humanity for people of color. The audience of white boys in jackets applaud his resourcefulness, spunk, and candor.

“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them,” Baldwin concluded. “And until that moment, until that moment comes the Americans; we the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors are both white and black, that on continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied their participation in it, by their presence, will wreck it.”

In his conservative rebuttal, Buckley trotted out some of his old Yale debating tricks. He was all charm, verbose, witty to a fault. The Buckley style was to strip away the feeling behind Baldwin’s words while replacing them with a rush of intellectual theories. He believed blacks should aspire to the status of whiteness, no matter what that effort took.

“They (Americans) are not willing to say that as a result of the fact that we have not accelerated faster the progress of the Negroes, we are going to desert the constitutional system, we are going to desert the idea of the rule of law, we are going to desert the idea of the American citizen, that we are going to burn all the Bibles, and turn our backs on Europe, and tell them that we want to reject our entire Judeo-Christian civilization and our entire Hellenic background because of the continuous persistence of the kind of evil that is so carefully and eloquently described by Mr. Baldwin.”

Still, the debate defeat suffered by Buckley unsettled the great orator, for he often referred to it several times during the rest of his life. Even the students sided with Baldwin by a wide margin of 540-160. Buckley protested to reporters that the students gave a standing ovation before he took to the stage.

Excuses aside, Buccola’s book gives us a deep dive into the icons who waged the war of words, complete with a full transcript of the event. So much has changed and so much has stayed the same. That reality check of racial irregularities comes with every current news report and social media accounts during this pandemic.

̶  Robert Fleming is a frequent reviewer for the Neworld Review

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