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

By Branham, Robert J. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

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


Branham, Robert J., Argumentation and Advocacy


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.

DEBATE BEHIND BARS

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.