On February 18, 1965, a crowd of more than 700 people packed Cambridge University’s debate hall for an intellectual clash for the ages.
In one corner: James Baldwin, the Harlem-raised grandson of slaves and leading literary voice of the civil rights movement. In the other corner: William F. Buckley, Jr., the wealthy and unabashedly elitist Conservative commentator.
The motion: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”
A memorable part of Baldwin’s argument for the affirmative: “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 southern oligarchy, which has until today so much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat.”
Buckley argued against the motion: “Well I don't know of anything that has ever been created without the expense of something. All of you who hope for a diploma here are going to do that at the expense of a considerable amount of effort. And I would thank you. Please not to belie the fact that a considerable amount of effort went into the production of a system which grants a greater degree of material wellbeing to the American Negro than that that is enjoyed by 95% of the other peoples of the human race.”
Now, nearly 55 years later, political science professor Nicholas Buccola argues in a new book that the debate still informs the racial divide in America.