William F. Buckley and National Review's vile race stance: Everything you need to know about conservatives and civil rights

Remembering the night William F. Buckley took his genteel racism to Cambridge--and left destroyed by James Baldwin

Published June 7, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

William F. Buckley, Jr.     (AP)
William F. Buckley, Jr. (AP)

Excerpted from "Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties"

With the challenges of the civil rights movement sparking worldwide discussion about the importance of individual rights and the limitations of tradition, the students of the Cambridge Union Society dreamed up a humdinger of an event to celebrate their one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in February 1965. Coming in the throes of the civil rights movement, when the hopefulness of the early movement had yet to give way to the more violent reactions of the latter half, the students thought a debate between James Baldwin, the most articulate voice emerging from black America, and William F. Buckley, Jr., the most persuasive conservative, would draw a significant amount of attention. They were right. More than seven hundred students showed up, filling every seat. An overflow room set up to pipe in the debate also filled quickly. The only black face in the audience was that of Baldwin’s friend, Sidney Poitier. The rest were white students from Cambridge, sitting alongside numerous reporters, including one from the New York Times, which would print the debate almost in its entirety a few weeks later.1 The proposition under consideration was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”

For Buckley, who had long opposed the civil rights movement, it seemed to be a perfect venue for him to explain his position. It was a formal affair at tux-and-tails Cambridge, away from the hot emotions in America, and he knew well the rules of collegiate debate: wear formal attire instead of a business suit (as Baldwin wore); answer only the questions from the audience you want to answer and skip over the rest (Baldwin seemed ruffled at being interrupted); and address the president of the Union instead of the entire audience (a deficiency that actually may have helped Baldwin).

But knowing the rules gets you only so far. Sometimes you simply can’t win an argument if your ideas are worse than your opponent’s. And with the help of some tactical nudging from Baldwin, it didn’t take long for Buckley’s shoddy ideas about race to come unmasked.

National Review had come of age alongside the civil rights movement, having published its first issue a year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed segregation in public schools and two weeks before the arrest of Rosa Parks. From the beginning, National Review could have endorsed the traditionalist notion that changes should come slowly within a society but should happen nonetheless, and that the rule of law need be respected above all else. Or it could have taken a libertarian stance that the state shouldn’t be in the business of segregating people at all.

But it didn’t take either of these paths. Instead, it fomented a direct assault against civil rights, embracing nearly all of the most offensive and discredited arguments against the movement, including the idea that black people were inherently inferior to white people. It routinely dressed up the racist resistance to civil rights with respectable-sounding arguments about states’ rights and constitutional law. As a signal crafter of conservative talking points in the midcentury years, throughout the 1950s and 1960s National Review developed arguments to oppose every motion in favor of civil rights, indiscriminately using sometimes contradictory ideas in order to pursue a single goal: the continued subjugation of America’s black people.

Buckley himself had developed two arguments against civil rights, both of which were little more than disguised racism, both of which led the line at National Review. The first emerged early in his career. Since the 1950s, Buckley had argued that civil rights should be opposed not because black people were biologically inferior to white people, but because they were not yet “civilized” enough to take part in democratic government. Or, as Buckley put it in 1959, “There are no scientific grounds for assuming congenital Negro disabilities. The problem is not biological, but cultural and educational.”

This “lack of civilization” argument has a long pedigree dating back to the country’s earliest thinkers on the subject, including Thomas Jefferson. Even some black leaders, like Booker T. Washington, expounded on the idea, if with different motives. In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument pushed Buckley in surprising directions. After repeated questioning, he was sometimes forced to admit that, in his view, all uneducated people, black, white, brown, red, or yellow, should not be allowed to vote if they didn’t pass some sort of competency test. This was an undemocratic stance to say the least, but at least it was consistent with his idea that only “civilized” people should rule.

As he pushed this line of thought in the pages of National Review, Buckley argued that no one knew what levels of education should be mandatory to participate in a democracy better than local arbiters. Thus, for Buckley, the federal government had no business declaring equal access when it couldn’t differentiate between uneducated black people in Alabama and black graduates of Harvard. The federal government should butt out; states should decide. If Massachusetts wanted to limit the franchise based on an IQ test, that should be its prerogative.

Of course, no one in Massachusetts was advocating restrictions on voting rights for uneducated white people, and thus Buckley’s argument displayed a willful ignorance about the abuses that had taken place throughout the South during the previous one hundred years, when literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses kept the vast majority of black people from voting. Nevertheless, Buckley relied on this states’ rights argument for much the rest of his life. Buckley’s reaction to Brown, for example, was that it was “one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history, patently counter to the intent of the Constitution, shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid in sociology.” He later added, “Support for the Southern position rests not at all on the question of whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side, but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.”

He didn’t stop there. In 1957, Buckley wrote National Review’s most infamous editorial, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that, “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”

And what method should be used to enforce the maintenance of “civilized standards”? According to Buckley, it should be a no-holds-barred defense, even including violence. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical [white] minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.”

In other words, it was up to the white community to decide when violence was appropriate. Through its White Citizens’ Councils, the resurgence of the Klan, and the general refusal to prosecute crimes committed against black Southerners, by the 1960s the white South had made its decision. And rather than condemn it, Buckley stayed the course. In 1958, National Review printed a cutting article on the black politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., entitled, “The Jig Is Up.” Buckley professed not to know the racial connotations of the word “jig.” In his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism, Buckley responded to an African nationalist, saying, “Your people, sir, are not ready to rule themselves. Democracy, to be successful, must be practiced by politically mature people among whom there is a consensus on the meaning of life within their society.” In his next breath, Buckley turned to American civil rights leaders, saying, “In the South, the white community is entitled to put forward a claim to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white—as one would certainly expect given their preternatural advantages, of tradition, training, and economic status.”

In a 1961 article in the nationally prominent Saturday Review, Buckley answered the titular question of “Desegregation: Will It Work?” with his first, all-capitalized word: “NO.” His rationale? For it to do so would require the dramatic intervention of the federal government, and conservatives should always oppose such an occurrence. Meanwhile, things weren’t so bad in the South, he said. Martin Luther King, Jr., was simply “more sensitive, and so more bitter, than the average Southern Negro, and hence unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent.” Meanwhile, Buckley allowed two open racists, sociologist Ernest van den Haag and editor James J. Kilpatrick, to write long pieces on civil rights for National Review (it was a piece by van den Haag called “Negroes, Intelligence & Prejudice” on which Buckley had asked Mailer to comment in 1964). Both van den Haag and Kilpatrick became the magazine’s authorities on the matter.

“My position on the moral aspect of segregation,” Buckley wrote to a sixteen-year-old correspondent in 1964, is that “[s]egregation is morally wrong if it expresses or implies any invidious view of a race, not so if it intends or implies no such thing,” and in the South in 1964, despite all the images of dogs attacking black children, of violence against black citizens seeking to vote, of hatred bubbling up against black students enrolling in schools, Buckley didn’t think there was much racism in the South. He saw such images as simply an effort to preserve civilization. “It is for each man’s conscience to decide in the specific case whether segregation is being practiced morally or immorally,” he said. It was, once more, an example of Buckley using sophisticated language to endorse the brutalities of segregation.

If Buckley’s first argument against civil rights sounded good to white Southerners worried about the erosion of their long-standing privilege in the South, his second argument, which he developed only in 1964 and 1965, helped lure Northern whites to his cause. This second argument might be called the bootstraps argument. Its premise was that generation after generation of white immigrants had come to the United States and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, working hard to give their children a good education, pushing the next generation into jobs and careers that ensured success. Why were African Americans the exception? Might there be something within the black community that prevented it from rising up, too?

As with his “not yet civilized” argument, there was more than a little willful ignorance here. The argument ignored the enormous structural inhibitions to black achievement, including the deliberate underfunding of schools in black neighborhoods (North and South), the devaluing of homes in black sections of towns (especially in the North), and the denial of benefits and promotions that had long been a primary way white immigrants had risen to middle-class status (especially in Northern-based unions and via the GI Bill). It was exactly these things that President Johnson was referring to in his 1965 speech promoting affirmative action when he said, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

Despite Johnson’s counterargument, Buckley knew working-class white people in the North were concerned about the decay of their cities and sensed that black people were recipients of special benefits solely because of their color. For them, the bootstraps argument had appeal. If their families had worked hard to succeed, why hadn’t the same things happened for black people? The structural inhibitions to achievement were often hard to see.

It’s unclear why Buckley took the anti–civil rights stance he did, especially because there were good conservative arguments in support of civil rights. Traditionalists, of course, privileged the right of law, which, after the Brown decision in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, clearly outlawed segregation. Libertarians, meanwhile, argued that the government should not be creating or upholding laws that tell people whom they can or cannot sit next to—in fact, quite the opposite. Indeed, in 1956, three short pieces arguing as much appeared in National Review. If black people in Alabama wanted to create their own all-black bus system in order to oppose the discriminatory public bus system, the pieces argued in good libertarian prose, they should be allowed to do so.

But Buckley scoffed at these arguments, defending “the right of the few to preserve, against the wishes of the many, a social order superior to that which the many, given their way, might promulgate.” Siding with what was “civilized” made it “responsible” for white folks “to refuse to enfranchise the marginal Negro.” No other articles sympathetic to the civil rights movement appeared in National Review.

One plausible explanation for why Buckley acted the way he did is that he was simply refracting the racism he had inherited from his mother, an affluent Louisianan who reflected the worldview of her upbringing. Another plausible reason for Buckley’s opposition to civil rights is that he knew how deeply ingrained racism was in America, and he was a political pragmatist. He had seen Southern politicians outdo one another in their allegiance to “massive resistance” to civil rights. He saw middle-of-the-road politicians voted out of office in favor of staunch segregationists. If he wanted to perpetuate his burgeoning conservative movement, he’d have to find a balance between opposing civil rights while not looking like an out-and-out racist. He’d have to clean up the arguments and make them safe for public consumption.

That’s what he had done in National Review, and that’s what he’d try to do in his debate against Baldwin.

Two Cambridge students spoke first, welcoming Baldwin and Buckley before spending five minutes advocating either side of the proposition. The student alongside Baldwin gave a fine speech, using statistics to prove that the American Dream had in fact come at the expense of the American Negro, whose plight and comparatively lower chances for success were indisputable.

The student on Buckley’s side then gave a sterling talk, showing a keen awareness of the dynamics of the room. He said, over and over again, that the success of the American Dream has occurred “in spite of the suffering of the American Negro, but not because of it.” He was careful to acknowledge that black suffering did in fact exist in America, and he repeated again and again that he was not arguing that civil rights should not come for black Americans (“that would be a very easy vote”), just that the American Dream was something that black people could now, at long last, access. In a revealing display, he discussed the income and educational achievements of African Americans, arguing that while they were significantly lower than those of white Americans, they were nonetheless higher per capita than the average Briton. This was not a failure of a people, but the story of a long-denied promise finally being fulfilled.

Buckley would have done well to listen to his co-combatant. Instead, he looked over his notes, appeared distracted, and smiled wistfully. His mind seemed elsewhere.

When Baldwin rose to go next, he first laid a trap for Buckley. Anticipating that Buckley would rely on his two main arguments against civil rights, Baldwin dismissed them in advance, saying, “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.” Buckley, Baldwin was saying, was identical to the Alabama sheriff who just couldn’t understand why someone would attack a culture that had allowed him to prosper. Buckley may or may not have been an outright racist, but that was beside the point. He simply couldn’t understand the plight of the downtrodden because he himself had been so successful. If someone failed to succeed, Baldwin imagined Buckley thinking, this wasn’t a social problem, it was their own. If Buckley tried to counter that argument, he would inevitably end up sounding like the Southern racists he was trying to justify.

But Baldwin had a lot more to offer than a trap. He talked movingly about what it was like to be a black child in America and to realize at age five, six, or seven that you were black, and therefore must confront an entire mountain of resistance to your very success as a human being. “It comes as a great shock,” Baldwin said, “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 . . . that the Indians are you.”

Addressing the exact motion under consideration, Baldwin then argued that the harbors, ports, roads, and railroads of the country “could not conceivably be what they are if it had not been for cheap labor,” and so, in a very real way, the American Dream had in fact come at the expense of the American Negro.

Then, in the most moving moment of the night, Baldwin said slowly: “I am speaking very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: I picked the cotton. I carried it to the market. I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing, for nothing.” He emphasized the I in every telling, the pronoun reverberating through the hall, and then echoing back through the loudspeakers in the overflow room. The echo made Baldwin’s voice akin to the voice of God. “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,” Baldwin said. “This, in the land of the free, the home of the brave. None can challenge this statement. It is a matter of historical record.”

Coming back to his trap, Baldwin talked with faux-generosity about how four hundred years of wrongdoing had actually been worse for Southern white folk than for black Southerners. “What happens to the poor white man’s, the poor white woman’s, mind?” he asked. How can a human do such despicable things to another human being? “Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.” If only, he said, they would accept their history, accept the fact that black people have been contributing to the good of American society for four hundred years, accept the fact that “our 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.”

The television announcer sitting in a balcony above the proceedings had called Baldwin “the star of the evening,” and he had lived up to expectations. As “the voice of actual experience,” the announcer said when Baldwin concluded, he had delivered an incredibly moving account, not only revealing what it meant to be black in America, but arguing the point at hand. When Baldwin was done, the crowd rose as one, sustaining an applause that lasted several minutes. The announcer, who had been covering Cambridge Union debates for decades, had never seen a standing ovation before and wondered out loud if it was the first such ovation in the Union’s 150-year history.

Baldwin took his seat before the applause died down and looked a bit stunned at the extended ovation. Eventually he rose again, waved his hand to the audience, and smiled. Buckley had his work cut out for him. Buckley would “need all his skill” to win the argument, the television announcer said. But sure enough, when Buckley stood up to speak, rather than listen to Baldwin’s arguments and push back, he stepped directly into the role of the Alabama sheriff who just couldn’t understand what Baldwin was saying. In a flash, Buckley morphed into Bull Connor.

“You cannot go to a university in the United States where Mr. Baldwin is not the toast of the town,” Buckley said, making the point that the United States could not be nearly as bad as Baldwin was arguing because Baldwin himself had been so successful. He then added a churlish personal attack, suggesting that Baldwin had even affected a fake British accent in order to win over this particular crowd (the crowd booed Buckley for the first time here). And then, somewhat remarkably, Buckley said that, in order to argue the point at hand, he’d have to consider Baldwin the equal of a white man: “It is quite impossible in my judgment to deal with the indictments of Mr. Baldwin unless one is prepared to deal with him as a white man, unless one is prepared to say to him that the fact that your skin is black is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise.”

At this moment, the camera cut to Baldwin, whose eyebrows rose up high, accentuating his already slightly protruding eyes to create the appearance of utter shock. Did you just say what I think you said? the look suggested. Was whiteness so normative in America that you would equate being color-blind with being white?

He had and it was. It was Buckley’s inelegant way of suggesting Baldwin might receive special treatment because of the color of his skin. All of a sudden, Buckley started to look like the Alabama sheriff Baldwin had warned everyone against.

Quickly realizing his normal mode of derisive attacks was not going to work (the boos increased as he proceeded), Buckley moved to his arguments. He began with the bootstraps claim. White people in America do care about black people, he said, but the structural problems that perpetuate racism are complex. And so, while white people are working out the politics of desegregation, black people had a duty to continue on their course of uplift. They had to rectify the “failure of the Negro community itself to make certain exertions which were made by other minority groups of the American experience.” Irish, Italian, and German immigrants had all pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; it was time for African Americans to do the same. Citing Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot, a recently published book about New York immigrant groups, Buckley pointed out that in 1900 there were 3,500 Negro doctors in America. In 1960, there were 3,900, an increase of just 400. Why so few? It wasn’t because of discrimination in medical schools (a partial if not complete lie), but instead, “It is because the Negro’s particular energy is not directed toward that goal.” Instead of demanding laws from the federal government, Buckley thought Baldwin “should be addressing his own people and urging them to take advantage of those opportunities which do exist. And urging us [white Americans] to make those opportunities wider.”

But if African Americans promised to bring “The Fire Next Time,” as Baldwin’s bestseller threatened, “our determination,” Buckley said, “will be to wage war not only for the whites, but also for the Negroes,” because white folks would act in the best interest of civilized people everywhere.

This was a subtle nod to Buckley’s idea that black people in America weren’t fit to rule, an argument that received jeers from the crowd. Didn’t James Baldwin look civilized? One student even shouted, “One thing you might do, Mr. Buckley, is let them vote in Mississippi.” To which Buckley responded: “What is wrong in Mississippi, sir, is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are.” The crowd laughed, thinking Buckley was joking. He put his arms on his hips and looked around the room, not quite understanding that they didn’t know he was serious.

By the end, the students were not impressed by either of Buckley’s main arguments, and they distanced themselves from his derisive attacks, which seemed little more than coded racism. They gave Buckley a polite applause, but no more.

When it came time to vote, Baldwin easily carried the day, 544 to 164.

It was a tremendous defeat, but Buckley didn’t see it that way. In a conversation with Garry Wills shortly after the debate, Buckley told Wills, “I didn’t give them one gaw-damn inch! They were infuriated [that he hadn’t granted Baldwin’s critique of America]. . . . But I walked out of there tall, so far as self-respect goes.” He felt his arguments were solid, and that the only reason he had lost was because Baldwin was a bigger celebrity.

Excerpted from "Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties" by Kevin M. Schultz. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by Kevin M. Schultz. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Kevin M. Schultz

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Books Cambridge Union Civil Rights Editor's Picks James Baldwin National Review Race William F. Buckley