By Roger Chambers
The Fire is Upon US: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate of Race in America.  Nicholas Buccola. Princeton University Press, 2019

A brief history of the civil rights movement from after World War II to the late 1960s, this book is also a dual biography of two opposing writers with their evolving views on race relations as this history was happening.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)  spent his early years during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. As he matured, he also spent time in Europe, especially France and Turkey, and visited some African countries as they were breaking free from European colonial rule. He wrote several novels, plays, and many essays, a collection of the latter forming the book The Fire Next Time. His novel, If Beale Street Could Talk was made into a feature film in 2018, which won an Oscar for best-supporting actress Regina King.

William F. Buckley, (1924-2007) was born into the affluence of suburban Connecticut. He quickly became one of the most influential conservative writers and speakers in the United States.  A devout Catholic, his first of many books was God and Man at Yale in 1951. Founding the conservative National Review in 1955, he wrote articles for that magazine including “Why the South Must Prevail” in 1957. A syndicated columnist for many years, he is best known for his unique accent to most Americans as the host of Firing Line, syndicated on television from 1966 to 1999. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of New York 1975.

The development of these two opposites is reviewed by their response to key events of the  Civil Rights Movement.  Events and personalities from that era are not just historical footnotes in the high school history textbooks.

In the 1950s, Emmett Till, a northern Black youth visiting Mississippi, was killed by racists for supposedly flirting with a white woman. His mother courageously insisted on an open coffin, providing a public display of the brutality involved. School segregation was formally declared as “separate and unequal” and unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in the famous Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. Rosa Parks’ refused to give up a seat on the bus, leading to the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott.

James Meredith had difficulty in obtaining admission to the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) in 1962. In August 1963 a few hundred thousand marched on Washington, and heard Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech.” A few weeks later the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed on a Sunday morning, killing four innocent girls.

During this era, freedom riders were mixed groups of white and black activists forcing integration on bus lines. They were often brutally attacked upon arrival in some southern cities.  There were various sit-ins of African Americans insisting on being served in “whites only” restaurants.

Buckley strongly supported Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 who was soundly defeated by Lyndon Johnson. When the Voting Rights Act was passed under President Johnson the next year  Goldwater was one of only six Republicans opposing it.

On March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama, several hundred African Americans on a march to Montgomery were brutally attacked by police with bullwhips, billy clubs, and attack dogs. This became known as Bloody Sunday, and films of this appeared as breaking news interrupting network television during a broadcast of Judgement at Nuremberg.

While police brutality was often an issue of concern, in events such as Bloody Sunday and many other individuals or smaller episodes not as well known, this era also had overt assassinations. These included Medgar Evers, a leader of the NAACP, killed outside his home in  Mississippi in 1963, Malcom X, killed in New York in 1965, and Martin Luther King, shot in Memphis in 1968

These events and what was often at the time called the “Negro problem” led to two “debates” between Buckely and Baldwin. On February 18, 1965, the two men met on a common stage of the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England to a packed house of university students. At this historical meeting, each man spoke to the issue: “Resolved: The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”

At the beginning, there were two introductory speakers, proposer David Heycock of Pembroke College, and opposer Jeremy Burford of Emmanuel College. They were followed by Baldwin, the third speaker, with Buckley, speaking last. Cambridge union members were tallied by walking through separate exits, and there were 544 supporting the motion and Baldwin’s view and 164 casting their votes in opposition to the motion, supporting Buckley.  The entire event was edited by the BBC for broadcast in an hour long program. Fortunately, a longer reel to reel version was obtained by the author, and digitalized to provide a more complete transcript for his analysis and for future historians.

Baldwin and Buckley also appeared on David Susskind’s television program Open End, taped on May 28, 1965. This was broadcast by several television stations coast to coast about two weeks later.

Many naively thought the election of Barak Obama was the end of racism in this country. Since the election of Donald Trump, numerous episodes of police killing of unarmed Black Americans reveals that that overt racism is alive and well. To understand how we can transcend racial discrimination and tense inter-racial relations, we need to understand the struggles of the civil rights era of the mid to late 20th century. This book lays the groundwork by reviewing that era as we continue the struggle of forming a more perfect union of all Americans.

Lockwood Law


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