In Episode 111 of William Buckley’s Firing Line, recorded on July 10, 1968, the show’s audience was treated to an appearance by two members of the Socialist Workers Party: Fred Halstead, who was running as the Party’s presidential candidate in the 1968 campaign, and Paul Boutelle, who was Halstead’s vice-presidential nominee. Since it first began life as a syndicated public affairs show on New York television station WOR-TV in April 1966, Firing Line had become an important platform for discussion of a range of political, social and philosophical issues. As Heather Hendershot notes in her 2016 book Open to Debate, the show’s influence far outstretched its negligible Nielsen Ratings, an appeal centered on Buckley’s own polished brand of conservative intellectualism. Buckley was the unquestioned star of Firing Line, with a polite yet relentless approach to debate which had been perfected since his college debating days at Yale during the late 1940s, and which regularly flummoxed all manner of unsuspecting guests.
However, in the July 10 episode of Firing Line, Buckley found an opponent that was unwilling to be won over or worn down by his respectable veneer and witty one-liners. Throughout the debate, Halstead took a back seat as Boutelle — a taxi-cab driver by profession — sparred with the Firing Line host on a variety of topics and issues, including the Cuban revolution, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the afterlife and legacy of the American Civil War. Boutelle was unwilling to moderate his views, repeatedly informing Buckley that he “represent[ed] a system which has been responsible for exploiting and murdering people all over the world.” When Buckley suggested that he represented a country “that went to war in order to liberate the Negroes one hundred years ago,” Boutelle suggested that he knew some folks in Mississippi and Alabama who would like to hear that.
Boutelle: Why don’t you take a trip down there this Summer and tell them that they are liberated?
Buckley: I’m sure if that I ran for office in Mississippi, I would have more Negroes voting for me than voting for you.
Boutelle: I’m sure of one thing; if you went down to Mississippi and told black people they were free you would be running and it wouldn’t be for office.
Boutelle’s appearance on Firing Line has become a cause celebre among SWP veterans who were involved in the 1968 campaign or who joined the Party in the decades that followed. In recent years, clips of the exchange have re-emerged on YouTube and other media-sharing platforms under titles such as “William Buckley vs. Black Socialist (IT’S ON!).” Over the past few months, I have corresponded with and interviewed more than a dozen former Party members or acquaintances of Boutelle as part of my ongoing project about the 1968 campaign, and the first thing many have excitedly told me is to watch the Firing Line debate. After Boutelle’s death, the event was singled out in a New York Times obituary as one of the high points of his career as a perennial Socialist candidate for public office — a career which continued after Boutelle had traded New York for the West Coast and changed his name to Kwame Montsho Ajamu Somburu in the 1970s. However, Boutelle’s son Asi suggests that for his father, the 1968 campaign was just another moment in an activist career that never really stopped: “he definitely talked about it a lot, but he saw it as one part of a continuous struggle … it was his life always.”
Born in 1934 in Harlem, Boutelle grew up in New York City and became politically active as a young adult. By the early 1960s, he had become entrenched within a variety of local activist networks and organizations, including the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which had been set up in 1960 with the aim of providing support to the Cuban Revolution. Boutelle also emerged as a key member of the Freedom Now Party, a short-lived Black political party formed around the time of the 1963 March on Washington, and was the Party’s candidate for the New York State Senate during the 1964 elections. Following Malcolm X’s split from the Nation of Islam, Boutelle joined the fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity and was present when Malcolm was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965. After the collapse of the Freedom Now Party, Boutelle turned his attentions towards the Socialist Workers Party, running for Manhattan borough president in 1965 and state attorney general in 1966 on the Socialist ticket. He would later split from the SWP to become a founding member of Socialist Action, before subsequently breaking from Socialist Action to help form the Socialist Workers Organization during his later years.
Despite this somewhat nomadic organizational existence, Boutelle maintained an impressively consistent political ideology throughout his adult life, characterized by the Times as a “Trotskyite scientific socialism forged in anti-imperialism and class-conscious black nationalism.” In this regard, Boutelle’s activism differed from that of fellow third-party candidates such as Dick Gregory, who primarily attempted to organize for Black liberation through the promise of New Left politics during the 1960s. Philosophical and pragmatic differences notwithstanding, Boutelle’s political activism was more closely aligned with that of Community Party candidate Charlene Mitchell — highlighting an important bridge between the African American popular front politics of the Depression and World War II–era and the continued attempt of “old school” Marxist and Trotskyist political parties to establish connections with Black radical activists during the first decades of the Cold War.
True to the Party’s internationalist orientation, the Halstead-Boutelle ticket took their campaign overseas throughout 1967 and 1968, visiting ten countries between them, including Japan, India, Germany, Canada, and Vietnam. On a two-week speaking tour of Britain, Boutelle met with American servicemen to speak out against the Vietnam War and with members of the British Black Panther Party such as Nigerian-born political activist Obi Egbuna. In an interview published in Young Socialist magazine, which reflected on his European tour, the activist sought to situate the 1968 campaign and its fraught racial politics within broader racial and class struggles across the world. At home, Halstead and Boutelle were kept similarly busy, visiting thirty-eight states in a hectic speaking schedule. In a summary of the campaign published by the SWP, the party contended that “millions heard Halstead, Boutelle or one of the 45 local SWP candidates on radio or television or read about them in the newspapers,” and declared that “the 1968 national election campaign was the most successful in the party’s history.”
The media exposure provided to the SWP’s campaign was heightened in large part by Boutelle’s dynamic public performances — most notably seen through his appearance on Firing Line in July 1968, with the activist’s sure-footed intensity playing well against Buckley’s smug Ivy-League schtick. It was also facilitated by the SWP’s strategic desire to take advantage of the “equal time” provision in the Federal Communications Act, with campaign staff member Jon Britton including relevant sections of the Act in mailing packs and urging SWP members to “pay close attention to local radio and TV broadcasts and report every appearance of opponent candidates.”
In this regard, Boutelle’s memorable media appearances remain an important reminder of how the visibility of fringe presidential campaigns has been significantly curtailed over the previous half-century, something in part contributable to mass consolidation within the American media industry and the parallel entrenchment of the two-party system. Indeed, for many of the SWP members who I have interviewed, Boutelle’s appearance on Firing Line and the Party’s success in generating media attention was indicative of a more egalitarian media environment which — when coupled with the political and cultural environment of the time — provided more space for fringe political parties to raise awareness of their cause.
At the same time, limiting Boutelle’s influence to his battle with Buckley does a disservice to the geographical and ideological ambition of his involvement in the 1968 election race — something which, for the Halstead and Boutelle ticket, stretched from colleges across the rural South to far-flung international destinations. At the heart of Boutelle’s own participation in the campaign, and his relationship with the SWP, was the pursuit of Black liberation and the dream of racial justice. This was a dream that, in different ways, animated each of the four African American presidential or vice-presidential candidates who ran for the nation’s highest office during the 1968 campaign.