Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

"I Was Gone on Debating": Malcolm X's Prison Debates and Public Confrontations

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

"I Was Gone on Debating": Malcolm X's Prison Debates and Public Confrontations

Article excerpt

More than any other African American leader of his era, Malcolm X used public debates to confront whites, advance and defend his own views, and challenge competing civil rights organizations, representatives and tactics. Between March 1960 and December 1964, he engaged in more than twenty formal debates and participated in numerous panels and interviews in which he was pitted against his fellow panelists (and frequently the moderator as well).(1) Even Malcolm X's individual speech appearances, which were often oppositional in character and quite specific in their refutation of claims and positions advanced by others, may best be viewed as moments in a larger debate involving non-proximate adversaries (Branham, 1994, p. 2).

Malcolm X was a brilliant debater, adept at dismantling the positions of his opponents, converting their arguments to his own advantage and, most importantly, casting the issues of dispute in utter and compelling clarity. He effectively challenged assumptions regarding goals and tactics of the struggle for human rights that had been taken for granted by many of his opponents and listeners. "Within a few years" of his introduction to debate in Norfolk Prison Colony, writes George Breitman, "he was to become the most respected debater in the country, taking on one and all - politicians, college professors, journalists, anyone - black or white, bold enough to meet him" (1965, p. 5). Yet despite their importance to his public advocacy, the debates of Malcolm X have received little scholarly attention. Few of his debates were recorded or transcribed; fewer still have been published. Current anthologies of Malcolm X's speeches include no complete texts of his debates. No comprehensive listing of the dates, opponents and topics for his debates has previously been available. The blizzard of biographies and critical studies of Malcolm X that have appeared in the decades since his death has produced isolated anecdotes of his debates, but not a single sustained analysis of his debate career or the reasons for the extraordinary emphasis he placed upon debating in his public appeals.

For Malcolm X, debate was a unique and valuable form of public address. His use of debate was a deliberate rhetorical choice, through which he believed that his positions might be advanced most persuasively to the largest possible audience (Branham, 1995). He confronted highly educated and sometimes nationally recognized adversaries in a format that accorded him relatively equal standing and some assurance that his views would receive consideration and response. Occurring in a period of apparent consensus on the means and ends of the civil rights movement, the public debates of Malcolm X effectively shattered the myth of Black unanimity and enacted the confrontation and resistance that formed the basis of his appeal.

Malcolm X's extraordinary career as a public debater and orator, as well as his public advocacy for the Nation of Islam, began in the debating program of the Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts. In this essay I will first examine the evolution and philosophy of the prison debate programs in which Malcolm X participated and offer an account of his experiences as a member of the internationally renowned Norfolk debating team. I will then discuss the importance of debate in Malcolm's X's later career as a public figure, providing a comprehensive record of his known debate appearances and an analysis of his methods and tactics. I will explore the rhetorical choice of debate as a preferred form of public address used by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to convey their beliefs to disparate audiences.


Malcolm X's prison experience was never far from his thought or speech in later life. "The most important strand of experience in the fiber of Malcolm's life," writes Harry Flick, "was his imprisonment" (p. 22). Prison was the site of his religious conversion and self-education; it also shaped his understanding of power and oppression. …

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