4 thoughts on “James Baldwin and Reinhold Niebuhr Talk About the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing

  1. It reminds me of the battle between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in 1925. Darrow was at the top of his game, and Bryan (who may have mopped the floor with Darrow in his prime), came off as bumbling and confused and outmatched. I’m a huge Baldwin fan (see his debate with William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union), but this isn’t really a fair discussion. Niebuhr was brilliant in his day. This discussion might have been better with a younger and more engaged representative of denominational Christianity. Eugene Carson Blake may have fared quite a bit better here.

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  2. James Baldwin came across as a man who had the ability to “think out of the box” with an admirably balanced analysis of the facts, albeit secular in nature. Dr. Niebuhr, on the other hand, presented a collage of tired, pompous, and trite Mainline Protestant religious nostrums. It’s not a surprise that Dr. Niebuhr’s brand of faith is in a state of collapse today and secularism is gaining ground. After viewing the program, I’d be more inclined to read a James Baldwin novel than a Niebuhr theological tome.

    It was interesting watching the old film clip. The program’s format, the vocabulary, the attire and manner of the participants, etc. were an enjoyable trip down memory lane.

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    • Niebuhr is in complete agreement with Baldwin. He also demonstrates immense respect for Baldwin’s insight. He appears concerned, however, that Baldwin’s message is likely to be misunderstood, if not taken as a threat, and therefore rejected by mainstream Americans of the time. Accordingly, Niebuhr spends the entire discussion attempting to reframe Baldwin’s critique in order to draw in those white Americans who might otherwise find Baldwin frightening. Of course, Niebuhr’s apologetic compulsion is telling of his understanding of the American character . . . or lack there of. There is nothing pompous or trite in Niebuhr. His speech is slightly slurred due to his age and failing health. The man was a Christian humanist, whose critique of American society called for an embrace of mutual respect while living a meaningful and inclusively spiritual and social life.

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