In February 1965, two of America's most towering public intellectuals faced off at the University of Cambridge in England. They were there to debate the proposition: "The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro."
Novelist and essayist James Baldwin argued in favor. He did so by pointing to the experience of the Black man in America. He said the legacy of slavery and white supremacy had in effect "destroy[ed] his sense of reality." Black fathers have no authority over their sons, Baldwin said, because a Black boy's "father has no power in the world."
"There is scarcely any hope for the American dream," Baldwin said, "because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it."
William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review, argued the opposing side. Buckley acknowledged certain injustices of racism and discrimination, but said Black people needed to do more to improve their own conditions.
"We must also reach through to the Negro people and tell them that their best chances are in a mobile society," Buckley said. "The most mobile society in the world is the United States of America. And it is precisely that mobility which will give opportunities to the Negroes which they must be encouraged to take."
More than a half century later, their debate is being reargued, or "reimagined," on Sunday night by two modern accomplished thinkers: Harvard University professor Khalil Muhammad and David Frum, who writes for The Atlantic.
Their debate — part of the March on Washington Film Festival — is being held under the updated motion: "The American Dream Is Still at the Expense of African Americans."
Baldwin and Buckley debated at a time when many Black Americans were effectively being denied the right to vote. Just weeks after the debate, civil rights marchers, including future congressman John Lewis, were bloodied by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It wasn't until August of that year that President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
Some 55 years later, the ongoing struggle for equality has manifested itself in nationwide protests against systemic racism and police violence against Black Americans.
Frum, who was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, tells All Things Considered that he wanted to participate to take stock of this moment in history.
"I think for a lot of us, this is a very heart-in-mouth moment, this fall of 2020. And you can lose perspective that things have been worse," he says.
Muhammad, who is a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, says he wanted the opportunity to "bring Baldwin's voice into greater recognition."
After a summer of protests over racial injustice while Black Americans die of the coronavirus at disproportionate numbers, Muhammad says, "Baldwin's voice as a novelist, as an essayist, as a critic of the hypocrisies of the nation and its core contradictions, speaks to this moment in ways that few other writers can."
Frum argues that in the 55 years since Baldwin and Buckley spoke, "the story of American politics has been the rise of Black political power, Black economic power, Black legal power, Black power in culture." He acknowledges the pessimism Baldwin felt in 1965, but says that now "when you tell people that they are powerless, that America is against them, that they are not part of the country, you don't teach action. You teach passivity."
Muhammad counters that "the story of black people in America, while [Frum's] right, is a story of great political vision and the dogged pursuit of making real the promises of democracy, [Frum] gives far too much credit to the American system as he explains it."
Muhammad instead credits "people who actually challenged at every turn the status quo. ... I completely reject the notion of despair as the natural outcome of criticizing this country."
Both Frum and Muhammad will speak and be cross-examined by students from the Howard University Debate Team.
The format of the event is a throwback to a time before the advent of social media. While modern political debate often takes place online in short, frenetic bursts, Muhammad thinks it's especially important for students of today to witness a different approach in order to understand the fundamentals of argument.
"In our system of government, you can't 'cancel' someone at the bar of the Supreme Court of justice," he says. "You have to make a case. And so I think that this old, very old format of debate is still as useful today as it's always been in order for people to hear precisely what the ideas are at stake."
Frum says debate is most effective when "people step away from it and they're different than they were before, not only the audience, but the participants."
When the Baldwin/Buckley debate was over, the audience voted: Baldwin won, 544 to 164.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, we want to tell you about a new take on an iconic debate. In February, 1965, writer James Baldwin and conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. went to the University of Cambridge to debate a charged question - has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro? Baldwin spoke first, then Buckley.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JAMES BALDWIN: This is not an overstatement. I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroad under someone else's whip for nothing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILLIAM F BUCKLEY JR: We must also reach through to the Negro people and tell them that their best chance is on a mobile society. And the most mobile society in the world today, my friend, is the United States of America.
KHALIL MUHAMMAD: The debate would go on to have a life of its own. It's been the subject of books and academic papers and was even featured prominently in the Oscar-nominated documentary "I Am Not Your Negro." And now as part of the March on Washington Film Festival this week, two contemporary thought leaders are recreating it, or maybe reimagining it.
Khalil Muhammad is a professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. And they are both with me now to tell us more about what it's going to be like.
Khalil Muhammad, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MUHAMMAD: Thanks, Michel, for having me.
MARTIN: David Frum, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
DAVID FRUM: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, professor Muhammad, I'm going to start with you and just ask, why is this debate so consequential? When I mentioned to some friends that I was having this conversation, that the two of you were reprising it, I confess that I was amazed at how many people remembered it or knew about it, which is unusual for a contemporary debate. Well, why is it such a big deal?
MUHAMMAD: Because Baldwin is a big deal. Baldwin has become one of the most celebrated writers of that period for a new generation akin to the kind of renaissance of Malcolm X in the 1990s. Baldwin's voice as a novelist, as an essayist, as a critic of the hypocrisies of the nation and its core contradictions speaks to this moment in ways that few other writers can.
MARTIN: David Frum, William F. Buckley is a revered figure in some circles - the father of American conservatism, as some would say. Professor Nicholas Buccola's 2019 book about the debate, "The Fire Is Upon Us," argues that Buckley was a thoroughgoing segregationist who believes that, as Buccola puts it, a combination of noblesse oblige and constitutional principle might reform the South over time rather than immediate desegregation. I assume you're not going to be arguing against desegregation, so how are you going to bring this argument forward?
FRUM: I never had the chance to meet James Baldwin, I'm sorry to say, but I did know William F. Buckley, and I really - I loved him. He was a very lovable person. And he was also a person who was, like all of us, I suppose, a person in motion through history. And I knew him in the later part of his life. He had a huge impact on me. His personal empathy and sensitivity were really remarkable.
You know, I think for a lot of us, this is a very heart-in-mouth moment, this fall of 2020. And you can lose perspective that things have been worse. Things have - there've been more fraught moments in American history, moments where things were more uncertain, more violent. And for all that we have been through over the past half-decade, this is also a moment that shows that - the strength of the country and its resilience. And that's what I wanted to talk about, was against cynicism, against pessimism, against despair and to show the extraordinary resilience of the American system and the universality of the American dream.
One of the things that was striking to me about that debate when you - Nicholas' book recapitulates it. The transcript is presented at the back. And, of course, you can watch it on YouTube - was - it was striking to me that people - neither of the debaters thought very hard about what is meant by this concept of an American dream. The man who coined the phrase insisted on its universality - that it was a promise that everyone - every man, every woman, as he said - should live to the fullest potential and be recognized as such by other people.
MARTIN: Khalil Muhammad, why did you want to participate?
MUHAMMAD: If there is a moment to take stock of what happened since 1965, over the past half-century, to reflect on this notion of a civil rights movement that delivered on the American Dream, 2020 is that moment.
And, of course, the pandemic has laid bare how the overrepresentation of African Americans, of Black people, of brown people as the essential workers of America whose comorbidities are not, like Buckley might have described in the 1960s, a function of their lack of energy and effort and commitment to their own well-being. But, in fact, their comorbidities are systemic racism, the ways in which our housing sector, our education sector, our labor market all reflect deeply entrenched disparities today that are rooted in the intergenerational transfer of discrimination.
And so as we look back and take stock of what happened over the past 50 years, it seems to me that this American dream is still being bought at the expense of inequalities that fall most heavily on one of the most oppressed groups and classes in this society.
MARTIN: In that regard, though - and I hope you don't mind my saying this - it seems that, David Frum, you might have the harder task in that the arguments that James Baldwin was making back in 1965 were shocking to some people. I mean, his arguments around, you know, the pervasiveness of white supremacy, his arguments around the way that other institutions of society were sort of complicit in that - maybe that was shocking at the time, but now, for many people, this is something that people are kind of discussing in classrooms openly.
I guess what I'm saying is I feel like it's - his arguments have had more of a sort of a wider acceptance, perhaps, than existed in 1965. And yet, you know, and William F. Buckley's are in some ways, in my view, the opposite. I mean, David Frum, again - I press the question - surely you are not going to be arguing that the American government should not have intervened against legally enforced and culturally enforced segregation. So surely you're not going to be arguing that. So what is your sort of center of gravity here?
FRUM: It's wrong to think of African Americans as the victims of the American dream. They are the test of the American dream. And when James Baldwin said in his amazingly powerful oration that - he said, I was there. I built - I raised the cotton and carried it to market. I built the railroads under someone else's whip. That's all true. But it's also true that he cast the vote if he's going to speak for millions of people. He cast the vote that made America a democracy.
And those commitments, whatever the intention - or however limited or maybe hypocritical it was when the people wrote the intention, the intention became binding. And so when you want to criticize the United States, you do it with tools that American history put in your hand. When you want to change the United States, you do it with instruments that the American system of government put in your hand. And to separate yourself from the American experience and American concepts and to say, I reject all that, is to make yourself naked and powerless.
One of the other points I made in the debate was the debate took place in February of 1965. And, of course, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed in August. So at the time the debate took place, Black Americans across much of the country were denied their voting rights.
In the 55 years since then, the story of American politics has been the rise of Black political power, Black economic power, Black legal power, Black power in culture and in other areas. And this resolution which repurposed language more than half a century ago speaks to the pessimism that James Baldwin felt as a writer, that to - the anxieties of a bygone time. And it denies the reality of Black political power, Black efficacy.
And when you tell people that they are powerless, that America is against them, that they are not part of the country, you don't teach action. You teach passivity at a time when the whole fate of American democracy depends on what people do in the next two months and their willingness to take some risks, invest some commitment, maybe even stand in long lines in order to protect the democracy of their country.
MARTIN: Does debate still matter? I mean, we are in a moment where people engage in discourse in lots of different ways - some of it not very satisfying, some of it not very elevated. But you're kind of - it just - I'm just interested in whether each - what each of you thinks about sort of the value of this kind of experience in the current moment. I mean, every - you know, you've got, you know, Twitter. And then there's - you know, there's that. And just as sort of a classic form, you're returning to something that we don't see very much of these days.
And I'm just interested in whether you - what you hope people will get out of that. Professor Muhammad.
MUHAMMAD: One of the most powerful things that I can pass on to a 25-year-old who might be prepared to cancel someone because of an opposing point of view is to say that in our system of government, you can't cancel someone at the bar of the Supreme Court of Justice. You have to make a case. And so I think that this old, very old format of debate is still as useful today as it's always been in order for people to hear precisely what the ideas are at stake.
MARTIN: What about you, David Frum? What do you hope people will get from this experience of watching this?
FRUM: Well, I have to say, although I was a college debater, and I've been - I've engaged in I can't think how many debates of my life, I'm not a big believer in the debate concept because what debate tends to do is to make ideas a contest, to try to score points. So I prefer to use terms like dialogue and encounter.
And I do that not as a euphemism because that's the spirit I always try to bring to these discussions. I think if you don't go into an encounter ready to be different when it's over, you're not going to do the audience any good because you're not going to do yourself any good.
MARTIN: That was writer David Frum and professor Khalil Muhammad. You can watch their commemoration of the 1965 Baldwin-Buckley debate tonight as part of the March on Washington Film Festival, which is virtual this year, so you can watch it no matter where you are.
Professor Khalil Muhammad, David Frum, thank you so much for joining us.
FRUM: Thank you.
MUHAMMAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.