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Peace does not only refer to the absence of global conflict, but also to peace between and within individuals, and to the means of achieving it. In this now iconic speech in Cambridge in 1965, humanist writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin called on his listeners to reject the idea that the state of things was god-ordained and unchangeable, appealing instead to their reason, compassion, and honest self-examination in working for meaningful social change.

On 18 February 1965, James Baldwin spoke at the Cambridge University Union on the motion ‘The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro’, concluding to a rare standing ovation. His opponent was the conservative writer and broadcaster William F. Buckley Jr., who supported the policies of racial segregation then still extant in the southern United States. Baldwin had left America in his 20s, spending many years in Europe, and spoke from bitter experience about the prejudice and bigotry he had experienced on his native soil. He discussed the damage for all concerned of one part of a population looking down on another, but argued that this entrenched inequality was ‘not an act of God’, but the product of ‘a society made and ruled by men’. To counter it, Baldwin argued, human beings must consciously remake their reality, and from common ground ‘forge a new identity, for which we need each other’.

Reviewing I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin which drew on the Cambridge debate, American humanist Sincere Kirabo described the resonance Baldwin’s words and writings continue to have today. He suggested that:

Baldwin’s poetic potency proves timeless as it continues to enter our core, cozy up to our beliefs, confront harmful opinions we have of the world and others, and demand a more just reckoning.

Sincere Kirabo, ‘Film Review: I Am Not Your Negro for The Humanist, 8 February 2017

The debate can be watched in full here.

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