Nicholas Buccola

Advocating and Denying Civil Rights

Air Date: January 3, 2020

Political scientist Nicholas Buccola discusses his new book “The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Nicholas Buccola, endowed chair in political science at Linfield College and author of the new book “The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Debate Over Race in America” by Princeton University Press. Previously Buccola authored “The Political thought of Frederick Douglas: In Pursuit of American Liberty” and edited “The Essential Douglas: Writings and Speeches” and “Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy,” Buccola’s essays, have appeared in scholarly journals including the Review of Politics and American Political Thought, and he’s already at work on a new book about the contested meaning of freedom in the American civil rights and conservative movements, respectively. Welcome, Nick.

BUCCOLA: Thanks Alexander. I’m honored to be here.

HEFFNER: And isn’t that really the thesis here, the diverging courses of defining civil rights from the perspective of William F. Buckley and the perspective of James Baldwin.

BUCCOLA: Yeah, absolutely. As I worked on this book, I kept thinking, I’m examining the tip of a large iceberg. And one of the things that really struck me is that this moment in the mid fifties, when the civil rights movement is emerging, and the conservative movement is forming, you have all these key concepts in American political thought, freedom being a central one, and you have these two, you have simultaneously, you have the civil rights movement rallying around a banner of freedom now, and you have the Goldwater supporters you know, going crazy when Goldwater says, you know, defending extremism in defense of liberty. So this fundamentally American concept, you know, liberty, freedom is being contested in this real way. And I’m really interested in this question of when people hear that term in that era, what are they, what are they understanding themselves to be saying? And, and what are they thinking about and how can we make sense of our own politics by sort of that history,

HEFFNER: Right, and also one man’s definition of civil rights is the other man’s definition of the erosion of civil rights. And so I want you to just give birth to this story as you do beautifully in the book. The story of how Buckley and Baldwin, odd fellows, political odd fellows, wind up in this, in this debate in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.

BUCCOLA: February 18th, 1965, we have this extraordinary moment when James Baldwin who Malcolm X defined as the poet of the civil rights revolution, is on this international stage with William F. Buckley, with sort of one of the founding fathers of American conservatism. So one of the questions I started with as I got started on the book is how did this happen? What, what was the story behind this? And it was really the result of publicists in the UK who were promoting Baldwin’s third novel in another country and undergraduates at Cambridge, many of those undergraduates, they were in their twenties when they hosted Baldwin and Buckley and many of them are still with us. I was able to interview them for the book. At this very moment when Baldwin and Buckley are squaring off at Cambridge across the ocean, you, you’re in the midst of the Selma campaign. And so the very night that Baldwin and Buckley meet there is a protest in Marion, Alabama, that’s depicted in the film. “Selma” this civil rights activist named Jimmy Lee Jackson is mortally wounded. And that really captures what the book is about is you have these two figures who in many ways embodiments of these two movements who are squaring off on this international stage. But the book is about the night they squared off, but also setting their kind of intellectual biographies against the backdrop of the rise of the civil rights and conservative movements.

HEFFNER: Right. So I want you to take us inside the worldview of these two men on that night. But first the motion for debate in the very legalistic style of these forums in the UK and Oxford and Cambridge, the motion for debate, the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro. And for our viewers, that is the way African Americans were identified, then, MLK, Jr., Baldwin, William F. Buckley, all appeared here on The Open Mind at some point and discussed the fate and future and liberty of the American Negro. MLK, Jr. talked about the new Negro and that was the subject of his exchange with my grandfather on this air in 1957 on which you sit now.

BUCCOLA: Baldwin is among the most famous writers in the world. So he had written in every genre: fiction, nonfiction journalistic pieces. And Baldwin was interested in really fundamental questions of, of the human soul.

He wanted to know is that he says his goal was to figure out what is it mean to be a free and fulfilled human being and what are the obstacles to that freedom and fulfillment. So Baldwin, a lot of Baldwin’s writing had addressed the sort of issues that were at the center of the civil rights revolution. Baldwin didn’t like to be identified as a spokesman. He didn’t like to be identified as an activist necessarily because he was really primarily interested in being what he called a witness and trying to write it all down and explain what was happening from his perspective, inside of people’s minds and inside of their souls really. And so Baldwin, by the time they appear in ‘65, is among the most famous writers in the world. He’s somebody who is written you know “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” this autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem you know, “Giovanni’s Room,” which was, we can maybe talk about later in the conversation, which is another really important piece of Baldwin’s fiction.

And so Baldwin is somebody who has played this role of really describing from the inside, trying to give people a sense of what the world looks like through the eyes of others, especially those at the margins of society. And so Baldwin, you know, is, is somebody who’s this leading literary voice of this freedom struggle. And Buckley on the other hand, he was not quite internationally known yet, but he was definitely, he was the second most prominent conservative in the United States at that point, second only to Barry Goldwater who just lost the 1964 presidential election. And Buckley was somebody who like Baldwin, the thing that, one thing they had in common was they were both masters at using the power of language to change the world. And so Buckley was somebody who you know, through his public speaking, through his, you know, thrice weekly newspaper column and of course his magazine National Review, which he founded in 1955 was somebody who was a founding father of the American conservative movement and really played an outsized role in shaping what we now call the conservative movement, forming a coalition of disparate groups on the right.

And one of the central stories of the book is how Buckley thought about race and civil rights and how that has shaped the conservative movement, as we know it today.

HEFFNER: Right, and in his own mind, I remember watching him in an interview in 2008 and warming to the idea of President Barack Obama. I mean, and actually I think being impressed with his eloquence and his galvanizing political abilities. But in this particular moment, I mean, I want you to tell us about the evolution of Buckley and the evolution of Baldwin, but at this particular moment when Baldwin says he wants to be a witness and not a practitioner of civil rights, did he find Buckley’s views at that point to be dehumanizing, to be eroding civil society? And how did he grasp that in the context of this forum?

BUCCOLA: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Baldwin, there’s no question about it. Baldwin viewed Buckley as somebody who was really helping weave the web of white supremacy in American political culture. And so, just to give a little bit more background on Buckley, Buckley says 10 years after he found his National Review, that his goal for the magazine on race matters was to be extremely articulate, non-racist but not reflexively egalitarian. So he was trying to walk a very fine line: non-racist but not necessarily racially egalitarian. And for what that amounted to for Buckley was a very sophisticated philosophy of resistance to black liberation. And so, but Buckley didn’t want a racial animus in the magazine. But he did, it was very clear from the very beginning of the magazine; they were against Brown v Board school desegregation. They were against any federal intervention to protect the civil rights of African Americans.

So oppose the Civil Rights Act ends up being opposed to the Voting Rights Act, critics of the Freedom Riders, critics of the sit-in protesters and so Buckley’s in this position of resistance, and that position of resistance, although it does not contain racial animus, it definitely contains a kind of fundamental commitment to the idea that some lives matter more than others. And that was always racialized, for Buckley. And so, although as you point out, Buckley kind of came around on some racial questions by the end of his life in this period that I’m focused on in the book he is in this position of intransigence and resistance. And so looking at Buckley through the lens that Baldwin provides us, I think is extraordinarily powerful because Baldwin was somebody who had a remarkable amount of empathy. When Baldwin is reflecting on the politics of white supremacy in the U.S., he is struck by the fact that most people, there’s a tendency to think when we see somebody who has racist views, that they are operating from a place of evil but Baldwin is, is always there to say that in many cases it’s not evil, but fear.

HEFFNER: Insecurity?

BUCCOLA: Insecurity, absolutely, and a fundamentally human struggle to construct an identity, and so Baldwin says when he’s thinking about white supremacy, what interests him is, you know, a lot of these, a lot of folks that you, see you know, in the South and elsewhere who are fundamentally animated by this idea of white supremacy, Baldwin says they’re really animated by a desire to feel a sense of status, to feel a sense of superiority to others, to sort of define themselves against something else. And so Baldwin is actually has a remarkable degree of empathy for a lot of folks like even in the Cambridge debate, he talks about Sheriff Jim Clark with that very moment is on televisions, newspapers, you know, around the world with his cattle prod in the streets of Alabama.

And Baldwin says, you know, when we see Jim Clark brandishing his cattle, cattle prod and using it against human beings, what’s happening to those victims is ghastly. But in some ways what’s happening to Clark is much, much worse. And what Baldwin means by that is he says, the moral life of somebody like Jim Clark has been destroyed by the plague called color. Clark’s sense of self, his sense of value is bound up in this delusion of white supremacy. So back to Buckley, when Baldwin sees somebody like Buckley he says Buckley is somebody who knows what he’s doing. He knows better than somebody like Jim Clark knows. And he is weaving these webs of delusion and he’s doing it not because he really cares about the interests of Jim Clark. He’s doing it to advance an agenda that has nothing to do with the interests of people like Jim Clark.

HEFFNER: And did he call him out as a manipulative thug in that, I mean, that’s the short of what you, I mean shorthand of what you said.

BUCCOLA: Yeah. And I think in the debate with Buckley, it’s a little bit, it’s a more implicit critique and a little, some of Baldwin’s writings I argue in the book, are directed at Buckley in this way. I think the really, the most powerful example of this though, and I think it’s very much on par with the way Baldwin thought about Buckley, is actually on The Open Mind. Baldwin appeared in late 1962 with James Jackson Kilpatrick who was known at that time as the leading salesman for segregation, a segregationist news man who wrote books, articles, gave speeches offering a kind of quasi constitutional defense and philosophical.

HEFFNER: And I must say since you invoke this, this was not a period in which my grandfather was hosting the program; a few years and he was creating, helping create public media, he stepped aside from that.


HEFFNER: And platforming segregationism is not something that necessarily he would want to do then or now.

BUCCOLA: Right. Yeah, no, no. And I think it’s a really important point and one of the things that’s fascinating about that episode is that, is that Baldwin in many of his friends and colleagues don’t want him to appear on the show with Kilpatrick. They think it’s a bad idea precisely because they’re worried that they will dignify his position.


BUCCOLA: But Baldwin felt a responsibility to go on that show and confront Kilpatrick. And I think it’s a really powerful moment. And it has lessons for us today, I think. But Baldwin, I mean, Baldwin sits down with Kilpatrick and the then host, you know, Eric Goldman introduces them. And the first thing Baldwin says, this is just weeks after the battle at Ole Miss. So James Meredith, an African American air force veteran, is attempting to register for classes at the University of Mississippi and all hell breaks loose.

Federal troops have to go into quell a rebellion. People die. There’s many people injured and arrested. And it’s just weeks after that and Baldwin, after their welcome to the show, he’s, he looks at Kilpatrick and he says, you think there’s a difference between men like you who write fancy books and wear fancy suits and so on and the people in the streets who are committing racist acts of violence. And Baldwin says, I think you are far more responsible than the mobs in the streets because you know what you’re doing.

HEFFNER: Degrees by which white supremacy and bigotry was, was attempting to mask itself as something other than that. And that’s why I come back to your description of the next project, which is defining civil rights. I don’t think anything that Buckley or Kilpatrick was advocating was in service of civil rights, but actually the opposite of, of civil rights.

So I think it’s problematic to get caught up in defining something as civil rights that’s plainly not right.

BUCCOLA: Right. And that’s exactly right. And that’s actually one of the reasons why, I mean Baldwin in some ways thinks that the sort of thing Buckley’s up to is more sinister because it’s much more subtle. I mean, so the, the ways in which, one of the things that happens in his exchange with Kilpatrick and his exchange with Buckley is that Baldwin says, you know, you claim to be a defenders of Western civilization. You claim to be defenders of the Constitution. And Baldwin, you know, looks at these guys and says, well, if you really cared about the dignity or as Buckley would often put it, the inviolability of the individual, if you really cared about the central teachings of the Judeo Christian tradition, if you really cared about the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence, then how can you square that with the way you’re treating people?

And so, but Baldwin accuses both Buckley and Kilpatrick of not being defenders of Western civilization, but being you know, they are betraying Western civilization, so…

HEFFNER: But it’s admirable that he had the courage in both the Kilpatrick and Buckley exchanges to fight fire with fire. And his fire was justice and he was facing injustice, but he didn’t do in contemporary norms what you may say, we’re not going to invite or dignify this way of thinking, but we have to understand that back then that regressive thinking was far more dominant. And so I’m interested in how Baldwin and Buckley reflect on this debate in considering how or when to legitimize in their own discussions or articles or publications, those counter perspectives.

BUCCOLA: That’s a really good question. And it’s definitely one that has this enduring relevance for our time. And I think that it’s, for Baldwin he saw his role, so both the, the Kilpatrick episode and the Buckley episode, one of the things I, you know, uncovered in the Schomburg here in New York was, you know, a telegram from Baldwin’s agent on February 11th, 1965 canceling the debate with Buckley, saying, I’ve advised Baldwin strongly against debating with Buckley, please cancel it. That didn’t happen. And one of the reasons I think it didn’t happen is because Baldwin believed he had a responsibility to confront people like Buckley and to expose them for what they really were. And so…

HEFFNER: No, I know. And he wasn’t just a witness in that respect.

BUCCOLA: No, no. And I, and I should say when I was making, know …

HEFFNER: That’s a global, but yes, it’s worth scrutinizing his own characterization of his role.

BUCCOLA: Right, right. And when I, and I, when I characterize Baldwin as a witness, I should point out as well, the Baldwin always felt this tension right between his obligations as a witness and his obligations to promote justice.

And so he was in a sense, he was, even though he didn’t like being labeled in particular ways, he was certainly an activist and certainly a key player in bringing about promoting racial justice. But yeah, I mean Baldwin believed that, you know, so when he goes on, you know, when he engaged with Kilpatrick when he engaged with Buckley, part of what he’s trying to do is to, is to really peel back a layer, you know, and say, let’s, let’s try to figure out what’s really going on here. What is it that somebody like Buckley is so afraid of? That’s what Baldwin wants us to be thinking about. Because again, he thinks there’s a lot of fear operating and understanding, you know, the sort of machinations of white supremacy. And there’s, and beyond that, there is the way in which somebody like Buckley is engaged in a project that really has nothing to do with, you know, with maintaining, you know, state’s rights or whatever rhetoric he’s using.

It really is this kind of rhetoric that, you know, what he’s really after is protecting particular interests that have nothing to do with what he’s, what he’s saying rhetorically. So Baldwin feels a responsibility to expose that. And so I think in our, in our current moment, there are moments and Baldwin says later in life, you know, he refuses to go on a couple of television programs in which he thinks that he cannot really have a serious conversation with somebody who rejects his humanity. And so that’s a line that we’re, I mean, we’re constantly trying to negotiate that line. And you know, you know, Baldwin, I should say later on when he appears on another program with Buckley after the Cambridge debate on Open End, David Susskind’s show. And on that night, they, it’s right before, you know Buckley declares his candidacy for mayor of New York City and, by all accounts, Buckley got the better of Baldwin that night because there was an exchange format. They were there for two hours – it was one of these long talk shows. And they you know, he got under Baldwin’s skin, which was one of the things that, that that Baldwin’s agents were worried about. And they didn’t want him to appear with Buckley because Buckley was a master at getting under people’s skin. And there’s something about that episode though that I think is very relevant to your question because, you know, Buckley says during the course of that conversation, they’re, they’re discussing the conditions in Harlem and Buckley says, do the landlords tippy toe uptown and throw garbage in the streets. He says this to Baldwin. And what Baldwin heard Buckley saying was that the people in Harlem who are at the margins deserve, they deserve to be in the place that they’re in.

And the people who are in more privileged circumstances deserve that privilege. And for Baldwin that was about as low as you could go, to say that. And so he says that when he heard Buckley say that, he said, I realized he cannot listen. He’s a bully. I’m never going to be able to convince him. And so in that moment, Baldwin said, he just shuts down and loses the debate. And he says later on – he says, what I should have done is hit him over the head with my coffee cup. And again, that’s a joke Baldwin’s making, but I think it’s a joke that has a very serious core to it. Baldwin says that when reason breaks down, we’re unwilling to listen to each other then violence will fill that vacuum. And he says that during the Cambridge debate he says, that’s what concerns me most.

HEFFNER: And to take the other perspective, how does Buckley evolve from that moment going forward? Of course, National Review did not undergo some kind of liberal renaissance by any means. When we alert our audience to Buckley’s evolution, it is similar to Goldwater’s evolution, in that there is a recognition that -and I don’t, where does he comment that – Brown v board and what he wants the National Review to define as egalitarianism. Is it more inclusive?

BUCCOLA: One of the things that, you know, when I started working on this book, I bought into I think the sort of popular narrative about Buckley that his, the story of Buckley and race is a story of redemption by the end of his life, he’s sort of apologetic. I found that it’s actually a much more complicated story than that. And so the evolution of Buckley on race though I think is really, really important for us to think about in terms of making sense of our own politics because Buckley goes from that position of resistance and intransigence that I talked about to a kind of more nuanced racial politics.

And so one of the, one example that I had given the book is just before the ‘64 election Buckley commissions a special section of National Review on race in the campaign. And during the campaign, of course, Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act of ‘64. There’s accusations of racism in the Goldwater campaign. Martin Luther King says he senses, you know, signs of Hitlerism in the Goldwater campaign. So there’s really, really you know, strong rhetoric going back and forth. But what’s interesting about this special issue that Buckley commissions is that there’s almost no mention of rights issues. There’s almost no mention of issues in the South. There’s almost no mention of Goldwater. He knows by that point the Goldwater is going to lose, but he knows what Goldwater has won the Deep South, right? So at that point, the solidly democratic South is now what they’re calling Goldwater country.

And so what Buckley does in this special issue of National Review is he has an essay about white backlash, right? Sort of, and this is where he wants to justify the idea that white people are feeling a sense of resentment about black liberation and they should be. And then the two, the two. So you use that as a framing article. And then the two articles that follow are about busing in New York and fair housing law in California, right? These two issues where Buckley senses really where the action is in terms of racial politics is going to be sort of whites who think of themselves as moderate or even liberal, but they feel a sense of racial resentment. They don’t want the civil rights movement to go too far into their backyard. And so Buckley is very adept at sort of, at sort of supporting that kind of a campaign. And I think that that’s something that we see coming down to us today. The politics of racial resentment is fueling our moment and right now, and in many ways, Buckley is somebody who popularized that politics in his own campaign for mayor of New York city, although not serious electorally, right? He had no chance of winning. It was very serious ideologically because he basically, one of the great ironies is one of the most elitist figures in American political history. William F. Buckley runs as a populist,


BUCCOLA: 1965.

HEFFNER: Right. And when it comes to specific constitutional law, I mean, at the end of his life, he respected Brown v. Board or he respected civil rights as we understood it, but there was never an acknowledgement of the distorted dystopia or warped view, what you very interestingly alluded to as Dr. King’s Hitlerism in the opposition to civil rights.

BUCCOLA: One of the things that’s interesting about Buckley is that, you know, through this period I’m describing in the book, he, he has critical things to say about particular, you know, racist demagogues, like George Wallace and Lester Maddox and Ross Barnett, these Southern governors. But you know, if you really read what he’s saying about these folks, you know, he says this explicitly in ‘63, after the Birmingham church bombing, he says, the problem with George Wallace is he does not, he’s failing to advance the cause of white people. That’s a quote from William F. Buckley. But over time, Buckley begins to say things like, he’s, you know, somewhat sympathetic to affirmative action. He begins to say complimentary things about certain leaders in the African American community. He even has an editorial where he thinks it’s important that the country elect a black president and he writes that you know, far before the country actually did. But these I think in many ways are, you know, at the surface of things. And Buckley really didn’t want to dig deep and think about things like structural racism.

HEFFNER:  Did Buckley have a relationship or did Baldwin have a relationship with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, because there’s someone who with rigor invested his academic life in studying the economic wellbeing of the African American community and created an uproar and controversy himself, but it seemed, was genuinely committed to policies that were going to advance people of color in New York City and New York. And I just wondered constructively thinking about race relations, after this debate, what are Buckley and Baldwin’s respective relationships with the NAACP and the, in the mobilization of civil rights into the late sixties and beyond?

BUCCOLA: Yeah, that’s a great question. And Moynihan actually comes up kind of indirectly in the Cambridge debate in the sense that you know, Baldwin and Buckley both were where I think, you know, familiar with the Moynihan argument of course. And, and Buckley –

HEFFNER: That is – for our viewers who don’t know.

BUCCOLA: Yeah, I mean, so, so one hand, as you pointed out you know, he, you know, authored important studies and books about you know, sort of the Negro family, right? It was the, the kind of major and as you said, it’s social scientific work, but highly controversial for various reasons. Buckley in this transition he’s making in ‘65 to this kind of different kind of politics of racial resentment, he does want to make that story a part of it. So in the Cambridge debate, for example, he cites the work of Nathan Glazer, somebody who was very close ideologically to Moynahan.

And part of what Buckley is trying to do there at the end of the Cambridge debate Buckley says that the racial problem, United States is the product of an unfortunate conjunction. On the one hand you have individual racist white people, right, that are out there when you deal with them, a few bad apples if you will. And on the other hand, we have what he calls failures of the Negro community. And this is where he draws on the kind of Moynihan/ Glazer argument to say that there are certain problems in the quote unquote Negro community. And that, and that African Americans are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are available to them. And he calls on Baldwin to encourage you know, African Americans to take advantage of the opportunities that are available. Now the problem with this point of view from Baldwin’s perspective is that there is a kind of way, first of all, Baldwin knows that Buckley’s doing something very intentional there by talking about individuals over here and you know, failures of the quote unquote community over here.

He’s trying to draw attention away from the sort of structural reasons why there is this story in American political history when it comes to race. And also Baldwin is, and this is something that comes up in the conversation he has with Buckley on the Open End program, is that Baldwin wants Buckley to come to terms with this term that really was important to Baldwin – demoralization, right? If we’re going to really make sense of these social scientific facts that somebody like Moynihan or Glazer can produce there’s a kind of moral foundation to all of that that Baldwin thinks somebody like Buckley and it’s even someone like Moynihan hasn’t really come to terms with. So Baldwin has, I think, a complicated relationship with the Moynihan’s and the Glazers of the world. But, and I think there’s more work to be done on that relationship because Baldwin himself kind of has his roots in the New York intellectual community. So he knows a lot of those people well, but he comes late in his life to really feel a lot of resentment to the role that they play in what he sees as the country’s wrongful moving to the right.

HEFFNER: I didn’t want to unfairly ask you, what would they say today respectively of the state of American politics. We’ll have to leave that for another exchange, but for now, Nick, I want to thank you very much for being on The Open Mind.

BUCCOLA: Thank you, Alexander. It’s been a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience, I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.