Conservative leader William F. Buckley Jr. and black writer James Baldwin engaged, or engaged rather incompletely, in a celebrated debate on the ongoing civil rights crisis at Cambridge University in February 1965. As can easily happen in a race-related argument, there seems to have been no real communication between them, although each made worthy points. As we would also expect, the students who filled the hall to capacity heartily cheered the anguished radical Baldwin, who won the customary post-debate vote by a wide margin. The proposition over which the contestants jousted was vintage Sixties, thought-provoking but vague: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Although not enough to justify a whole book, the Cambridge Union debate, despite its necessarily limited time and clashing perspectives rather than dueling arguments, is a good way to get readers’ attention. The Fire Is Upon Us goes deeply into Buckley’s and Baldwin’s longstanding positions on civil rights and race, thus acquainting us better with the full dimensions of the issue—probably the most consequential one of the whole brimming decade.
The Inadequacy of Slogans
Author Nicholas Buccola, a political scientist at Linfield College who has written a book on Frederick Douglass and edited a volume on Abraham Lincoln, has a good background for his topic. And his subtitle, James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America, is justified in claiming to deal substantially with that wider debate. The two advocates were men who not only spoke but thought carefully for themselves, both recognizing that sloganeering was inadequate to the vast theme which had become such a commanding presence in our country. A careful study of each therefore strengthens our grasp of that theme. Buccola is right to take—and to ask that we take—a close interest in their views. Although the reader may generally sense that he’s indicting Buckley while patiently explaining Baldwin, there is no shortage of judicious insight in The Fire Is Upon Us, one of whose most significant points (he notes but doesn’t stress it in regard to Buckley) is that these radically opposed figures both, in their own ways, strongly rejected hypocrisy.
After an account of the Cambridge debate, the book becomes, for several chapters, a parallel Baldwin-Buckley biography with a special emphasis on race. (Chapter 1 is titled, reasonably enough: “The Ghetto and the Mansion, 1924-46.”) Baldwin, the son of a loving mother and a psychologically brutal stepfather—brutalized especially, Baldwin believed, by his justified rage at a racist world—would combine great sensitivity with much alienation from whites in his insightful commentary, starting with his highly praised fiction and branching out into journalism and think pieces. His distinctive view of America’s racial problems and injustice, perhaps enriched in some way by his perspective as a homosexual, began with brilliant reflections on his own experience growing up in Depression-era and mid-century Harlem. His thought evolved into a recurrent analysis of racism’s impact on white Americans—who, Baldwin stressed, were saturated with it—and turned increasingly hysterical as the violence against the civil rights movement piled up with atrocities like the murder of Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers in mid-1963. At the end of 1964, Robert Brustein, a major arts critic who wrote especially for the liberal New Republic, savaged Baldwin’s Nothing Personal (a collaboration with the eminent photographer Richard Avedon) in the New York Review of Books. Baldwin, he wrote, sounded “like a punchy and pugnacious drunk awakening from a boozy doze during a stag movie.” More seriously, Brustein lamented that the author, having formerly articulated a “courageous and beautiful dissent” in his “direct and biting criticism of American life,” had now descended into the “slippery prose” of a “showbiz moralist.”
Baldwin was, nonetheless, at the height of his fame and lionization in 1965. Although Buccola describes him as a “frenetic bohemian” whose engagement with politics was only “sporadic,” his comparably longstanding depth of conviction in regard to the racial problem was likely enough to make up for his less-political orientation. Baldwin’s audience may have been disposed to his position, but Buckley’s deep engagement with both politics and policy offered some compensation. Baldwin seems to have consistently viewed politics as a false hope for African-Americans, but far more than politics was at issue in their debate.
Baldwin may, for example, have prepared for his eventual debate with Buckley more than a decade earlier, simply by writing the semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain—in effect, as Buccola interprets it, a debunking of the American dream. Also highly relevant to a debate on the American dream was one of Baldwin’s most powerful themes, again well before his less coherent, extremist phase: how a racist social structure looked to a black parent. “It is not a pretty thing to be a father,” he wrote in “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South,” published in 1959 by Partisan Review, “and be ultimately dependent on the power and kindness of some other man for the well-being of your house.” Even if the white people closest to his life were indeed kind, the black man could, “at any instant,” see all that he loves “taken from him.” Elsewhere, Baldwin described an abysmal horror for black parents upon reflecting that nothing they could do would protect their children from equal amounts, throughout their lives, of the racism and dehumanization they themselves had suffered. A very different (and, until late in his short life, very racist) black leader, Baldwin’s friend Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, praised him in terms that are hard to dispute: “the poet of the civil rights revolution,” the movement’s “leading literary voice.”
James Baldwin couldn’t be expected to condemn the Nation of Islam and its vicious anti-white racial theology, coupled as it was with a strong insistence on a rigorous self-respect and self-reliance for blacks, as thoroughly as Buckley conservatives would have wanted him to. But he nonetheless condemned it, and on grounds that extended well beyond pragmatism:
Whatever the merits of the [NOI’s reverse-racist] strategy as a way to enhance one’s sense of power, he argued, it was a sure way to destroy one’s soul. Muslims should remember, he said, that the doctrine of white supremacy had ‘done more to destroy white men in this country … than it has done to destroy the Negro.’ … Physical destruction, he seemed to be saying, is but one way to perish; he was concerned, primarily, with the threat of moral destruction that followed inevitably from all philosophies rooted in the denial of universal human dignity.
More gently, Baldwin had even repudiated his youthful socialism. “My life on the Left is of absolutely no interest,” he wrote. “It did not last long. It was useful in that I learned that it may be impossible to indoctrinate me.” Asked in an author questionnaire early in his career “what things or people annoy you most,” Baldwin said he was “distrustful of the doctrinaire, and terrified by those who are never troubled by doubt.” Reviewing Negroes on the March: A Frenchman’s Report on the American Negro Struggle by Daniel Guerin, Baldwin wrote that the Marxist author’s “vision of the world” remained so “elementary” that he “can hardly be trusted to help us understand it.” The book amounted to a “shrill diatribe against the capitalist system,” a “desperate cliché.” Guerin had also shown an “ungenerousness” toward non-Marxists, the kind of thing that often goes with a “death of personal humility.” Indeed, Baldwin remarked, “I cannot avoid a certain chill when I think of the probable fate of dissenters in his vari-colored brave new world.”
While Baldwin saw bigotry as a disease, his “moral expectations” were, in Buccola’s words, “about as demanding as one can imagine.” Those expectations, however, applied at least in his early and middle career to everyone. And he warned of the “sadly persistent fact” that “freedom, justice, [and] democracy are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare … It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.” It was natural although indefensible, Baldwin believed, for whites to oppose racial justice. “Any real change,” he wrote in his 1956 essay “Faulkner and Desegregation,” implies “the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” The natural response is to “cling,” and those who resist change are, Buccola paraphrases, “less often evil than they are terrified.”
In the long run, Baldwin’s moral expectations seem at least to have decayed. One of the Sixties events which further radicalized him was the Watts riots in Los Angeles, half a year after the Cambridge debate and immediately after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. “Under such conditions,” Buccola recounts, “Baldwin had no patience for talk of ‘civilization,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘law and order.’ … The ‘pious calls to ‘respect the law,’ ’ he declared, when the ‘ghetto explodes’ are ‘nothing short of obscene.’ ‘The law,’ he insisted, ‘is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender self-respect.” Buckley was not unreasonable in eventually accusing Baldwin of communicating “swollen irrationalities,” or perhaps even in claiming that his “morose nihilism” was “a greater threat by far to prospects for the Negroes in America than anything that George Wallace ever said or did.” On the other hand, it is hard after reading this book to see even the 1965 Baldwin as a true nihilist. He was still, in his own unusual way, a man of faith although not optimism. The narrative ends in that year, with unfortunately slight discussion of Baldwin’s later decades.
Whitewashing Conservatism’s Past?
Most conservatives don’t seem to understand the extent of their movement’s early opposition to the civil rights agenda (or certainly to much of what was called civil rights, including much of its mainstream). Although Buckley isn’t necessarily a representative exemplar of that opposition, his centrality as a conservative voice and leader gives his particular views on civil rights and race more than antiquarian interest in our time, a long half-century century later. In addition to opposing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Buckley, like a great many Americans on his side of politics, opposed even much of the civil rights movement’s early activism. In the case of the Voting Rights Act, he opposed not only what he viewed as a federal usurpation of power, but also the act’s purpose: the immediate mass enfranchisement of blacks in the South. Buckley was a son of privilege, although one who grew up with and maintained throughout his life an overwhelming sense of duty to his country and world. He had grown up in rural Connecticut in a mansion called “Great Elm,” and some of the time, too, in pre-World War II South Carolina. His parents were far from racial progressives, and his mother Aloise, from upper-crust New Orleans, had what Buccola calls “a genteel, maternal racism,” an attitude that Buckley was greatly irritated to see lumped together by liberals with the racism “motivated by hatred.” He wanted Southern whites to voluntarily outgrow racism, and Southern blacks to prepare themselves for such new opportunities as he believed magnanimity by whites could gradually provide. He also opposed, in addition to the two great civil rights bills, any immediate, rather than slow and organic, social revolution for African-Americans.
In describing Buckley on race and civil rights, Buccola of course includes the famous 1957 editorial he wrote for his young opinion journal National Review, “Why the South Must Prevail,” which said the “central question” in regard to civil rights was “whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not dominate numerically.” A crucial consideration in judging the now-developing civil rights agenda, Buckley wrote here, was “the claims of civilization” as distinct from “the catalogue of rights of American citizens, born Equal.” He maintained that it was “more important … for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” Whites in the South were “for the time being … the advanced race” and should therefore remain dominant. They should do so not for their own sake, but for everyone’s; their power must be exercised in the best interests of blacks and of black progress, not just for their own advantage. But in the same editorial, Buckley spoke tolerantly of Southerners who were willing to pay “the terrible price of violence” in resisting what he viewed as wrongful impositions from outside.
Buccola also has more to point to than this early, and eventually repudiated, editorial. He makes much of Buckley’s connection with the gentlemanly James Jackson Kilpatrick of the Richmond News Leader, perhaps the leading spokesman for the constitutionalist wing of the segregationist cause. What is probably less well-known, and was unknown to me, was Buckley’s praise of the novelist William Faulkner, who had recently said he would be willing to “fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes,” as—for different reasons, but in clear awareness of Faulkner’s violent assertion—a voice of “sanity” on civil rights. Also embarrassing for conservatives is the friendly contact that Buccola shows between Buckley and William J. Simmons, the leader of the segregationist White Citizens Council (often called somewhat hyperbolically ‘the uptown Klan’) and an ally of Kilpatrick’s. He speculates at one point that Buckley’s opposition to the civil rights agenda may have owed something to an unwillingness to write off strongly segregationist Southerners as subscribers or potential subscribers to National Review, and suggests the magazine even used the Citizens Council mailing list to solicit new readers. Buccola’s ultimate judgment of Buckley on civil rights, though, seems too harsh and is inadequately supported by evidence: “His goal was to maintain white domination of the South, one way or the other.”
Nonetheless, the Buckley position would in fact have maintained more white domination of the South for longer. In the same year as the Cambridge debate, Louis Waldman, a prominent liberal labor attorney, published in the New York State Bar Journal an essay called “Civil Rights-Yes, Civil Disobedience-No,” a case against mass lawbreaking for higher moral purposes. Buckley’s skepticism of the civil rights movement went further than Waldman’s non-racial discussion, and further than arguments against the federal government’s constitutional authority to enact a sweeping civil rights law. The title of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s short book Why We Can’t Wait perfectly expressed his movement’s moral urgency. In stark contrast, Buckley can be said with little exaggeration to have held that African-Americans—although ultimate justice was, he conceded, on their side—must wait.
That position is indefensible in decent discourse today. But although it’s a true description of Buckley’s view as far as it goes, it is only a partial description, because he also believed and urged that the white South must act in the interest of its large black minority, not merely its own. It must, he said, begin working toward fair treatment and full citizenship for African-Americans and must conscientiously persist in this. Its apparent self-interest should not stand in the way of that goal. Buckley’s total position was still a world apart from King’s “why we can’t wait,” which by 1965 had become the mainstream view, at least as publicly expressed, in American politics. As such, it is easy to mock or condemn. Yet it also had something in common with the militant Baldwin’s perspective: This is such a deep human problem, both said, and it’s ultimately about the heart and soul. It should also be noted, again, that the book ends in late 1965. Buckley certainly accepted the civil rights revolution that was completed, legally speaking, by the end of the decade. Buccola shows that in 1964, and again this probably isn’t well-known, he had sympathized with the segregationist Alabama governor Wallace’s candidacy in the Democratic presidential primaries. In 1968, Buckley publicly and privately denounced Wallace, then a third-party presidential candidate.
Buckley’s brother-in-law and NR colleague Brent Bozell Jr., a right-wing firebrand in other respects, criticized the 1957 “Why the South” editorial two weeks later on NR’s Open Question page, where he explained that upholding the law was a principle essential to conservatism and that the South was violating the Fifteenth Amendment by denying many blacks the vote. Writing in response, Buckley stressed that many Southerners believed the post-Civil War Fifteenth (right to vote) and Fourteenth (“due process of law … equal protection of the laws”) amendments were illegitimate—“inorganic accretions to the original document, grafted upon it by a victor-at-war by force.” He nonetheless urged Southern whites to honor “the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment” making voting rights apply equally across the races, in part by disenfranchising many whites. He repeatedly advocated this, even as late as the Cambridge Union debate, on the ground that allowing fewer whites (and not too many additional blacks) to vote would facilitate desirable progress in the South. Count on the always-independent and creative Buckley for a twist.
Remembering the American Dream
Buccola’s two-sentence summary of Buckley and the early National Review in relation to civil rights seems about right: “He wanted the magazine to avoid racism and resist racial egalitarianism. This proved to be a delicate balance indeed.” The author also has a defensible analysis in what he identifies as the four major categories in Buckley’s and NR’s case against most of the civil rights agenda and protests: “constitutionalist, authoritarian [but it would be more fair to say: “law-and-order”], traditionalist, and racial elitist.” Less defensible is Buccola’s contention that each of these categories “was undergirded by an assumption of cultural (if not congenital) white supremacy.” He certainly goes too far when he cheaply reads a de facto racism into the 1960 founding manifesto of the Buckley-sponsored Young Americans for Freedom, the Sharon Statement, due to its emphasis on what it called “the primacy of the several states” and its identification with “internal order” and “economic freedom.” Such commitments, Buccola writes in an atypically clumsy sentence, “provided rationales for resistance to the integration efforts by state or nonstate actors deemed likely to bring about civil unrest.” Even worse is this claim: “There was no need to add a separate pillar explicitly endorsing the racial status quo; this commitment was baked into the pillars at the foundation of the American conservative movement.”
If only due to such excesses as these, the reader should be skeptical of Buccola’s remark that Baldwin “mopped the floor with Kilpatrick” in a 1962 debate—and his judgment that, substantively and not just audience-wise, he “triumphed over Buckley at Cambridge.” It’s heavy-handed and undisciplined for an author who not only clearly agrees with one of the debaters but disdains his opponent to try to tell us who won, albeit far less important than an assertion that the YAF founders believed in “the racial status quo.” Readers of The Fire Is Upon Us would do well to consult additional sources on these questions—not least “How William F. Buckley, Jr., Changed His Mind on Civil Rights,” a 2017 article by Alvin Felzenberg, author of A Man and His Presidents, a political biography of Buckley (which I reviewed for Law & Liberty). They will learn, among many other things, that he publicly condemned commercial proprietors’ violations of the Civil Rights Act, once it was law.
Constitutionally-based opposition to the civil rights laws was “perfectly hygienic” and he wasn’t “ashamed of it,” Buckley told me a few months before his death, in a final interview for my book on his National Review colleague William Rusher, “but it lost theatrically the demand of the moment,” for justice for African-Americans. It was unclear whether he meant that he and NR should, at the time, have conceded this demand’s moral rightness to be more important than what they viewed as correct constitutionalism—or just that their position had, understandably, made him and his colleagues look dramatically out of touch. I am inclined, though, to think Buckley meant the first, especially because he had said as much elsewhere. “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” he told Time magazine in 2004. “I was wrong. Federal intervention was necessary.”
Buckley couldn’t possibly have used emotions as well as Baldwin did at the Cambridge Union. That isn’t a knock on Baldwin, for emotions were indispensable to a real grasp of the issue—especially, although not only, as stated in the debate’s title. But so was the cooler Buckley’s level-headed contextualizing, with its insistence on the fundamental soundness of the American dream: “I challenge you,” he said in one of the debate’s best lines, “to name another civilization anytime, anywhere, in the history of the world in which the problems of a minority is [sic] as much the subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States.” While clearly inadequate on its own, the point was and remains important. There is no good refutation of it.