Today on October 26th in 1965 William F. Buckley and James Baldwin met at the University of Cambridge to debate the topic "Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American negro?". William F Buckley was the founder and editor of the conservative National Review. James Baldwin was a writer and social activist. Click here to view the debate!
One side of the debate argued that the comfort and freedom of white people in America are gained at the expense of African Americans, citing the events regarding protests in Selma and the restriction of voting rights. If white Americans are willing to exploit black labor, enjoy black music, and send black people to war, but unwilling to sit with them at lunch counters and honor their right to vote, then they are denying the American dream to African-Americans.
The other side argued that America is the "land of opportunity", that James Baldwin is himself a demonstration that black Americans can work hard and improve race relations and enjoy all the benefits and freedoms that white Americans enjoy.
Inside Higher Education Blog highlighted the debate: (https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/education-oronte-churm/why-james-baldwin-beat-william-f-buckley-debate-540-160)
James Baldwin, arguing that the south could not have achieved prosperity without free labor, powerfully stated: "I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else's whip, for nothing. For nothing."
“The white South African or Mississippi sharecropper or Alabama sheriff has at bottom a system of reality which compels them really to believe when they face the Negro that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity.”
He then makes deft use of the 2nd person in order to draw a circle around the experience of being black in 1960s America:
“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 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 although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
A small ripple of laughter coursed through the Cambridge fellows at that moment. A laugh not of amusement, but recognition. Baldwin shifts to the first person, reminding the audience that the man in front of them is indeed part of this “you”:
“From a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country--the economy, especially in the South--could not conceivably be what they are if it had not been (and this is still so) for cheap labor. I am speaking very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else's whip for nothing. For nothing."
The Southern oligarchy which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave.”
Baldwin hammers the “I” in his delivery in the first part. The final lines of this passage are delivered in some combination of sorrow and disbelief.
Baldwin then returns to his theme that black America is not the only group being destroyed by this system:
“Sheriff Clark in Selma, Ala., cannot be dismissed as a total monster; I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me. But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman's breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse. Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.”
Baldwin finishes with this:
“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, 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 comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. If the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.”
This was a powerful debate at a crucial moment in the civil rights movement, and James Baldwin won handily (540 votes versus 160). The act of debating shines light on the issues of the day and creates clarity of thought, even when they are not of such historic significance. Join your school's debate team to be part of great moments like this one.