James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley

James Baldwin, the great essayist, poet, civil rights activist, writer and orator, would have turned 93 this week. In order to commemorate the importance of his memory and legacy, we are showcasing today the very famous Cambridge debate in which—while surrounded by an overwhelmingly white audience—he courageously and adeptly defended the proposition that “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro” against the influential conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr.

Prior to this debate, Buckley had made his reputation as a leading American conservative, at least partly, through his writings opposing the civil rights movement and desegregation, and by publishing in 1957 a famous editorial in National Review titled “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he cited the "cultural superiority of White over Negro" while defending his belief that whites are "entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically." All of this while conveniently—though in perfect line with conservative ideology—remaining silent about the fact that the lack of educational equality afforded to blacks in the South was the direct result of cultural and legal obstacles deliberately created and consciously enforced by white supremacy.

Everyone knew this would be a fascinating and important debate, but though expectations were high, no one could have predicted just how powerful and historic Baldwin's performance would become, not only for his skill as a masterful rhetorician, but for the deep honesty, humanism and personal conviction from which he so eloquently spoke...

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