In the winter of 1960, around the same time that four black college students were taking their seats at a lunch counter in Greensboro, Malcolm X set up a string of high profile debates to elevate his platform and challenge mainstream civil rights organizations who were pushing for integration. Between 1960 and 1964, Malcolm participated in more than twenty formal debates, including at Yale Law School, where he argued against integration and made a case for Islam as a remedy for America’s ills.
Malcolm’s impressive intellect and brilliant oratory skills had been honed at the Norfolk Prison Colony where was a member of the prison debate team which debated student teams from Harvard, Yale, Boston University, MIT, and Holy Cross. Malcolm easily won every single debate he participated in while in prison. Malcolm thrived on the lost art of debate; for him, confrontation and communication were prime pathways for the revelation of truth. Malcolm debated integrationist black men with whom disagreed, and he debated racist white men with whom he disagreed. He believed that raw debate face-to-face was necessary to “clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies.”
In September 1960, the month before Malcolm came to speak at Yale Law School, Malcolm was rubbing elbows with Fidel Castro at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where Castro also met with Nikita Khrushchev, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru. Castro had agreed to move to the hotel uptown on Malcolm’s suggestion, after a spat about the bill at the Hotel Shelburne in midtown. Castro thought being situated in Harlem would help him convince black Americans to support the new Cuba and his plans for liberating Afro-Cubans from their oppression.
When Malcolm took his place in the hallowed halls of Yale Law School before a standing-room-only audience on Oct 17th, 1960, he declared: “The western world is sick. America is sick.” By chance, on that very same day, Vice-President Nixon spoke with a much smaller crowd on the New Haven Green about getting tough with dictators like Castro and Khrushchev “whose objective is to conquer the world by any means if necessary.” Separated by just a few blocks in geography, Malcolm’s call for the complete separation of the races and Nixon’s strong man capitalist politics were gulfs apart. What united them, however, was that both men welcomed the presence of the opposition at their events – unimaginable in today’s highly partisan political circus.
Malcolm began his talk at Yale Law School appealing for minds to kept open and reason to prevail. He said: “In this crucial hour in which we live today, it is essential that our minds constantly be kept open to reality. We have both races here in this Yale Law School Auditorium tonight. Let us not be emotional. Let us be governed and guided only by facts.” Joining him on stage was NAACP national youth secretary Herbert Wright who was a grassroots organizer of college students and a champion of nonviolent protests, having organized numerous sit-ins across the South.
Minutes before the debate began, Malcolm followed Herb into the men’s room to talk strategy. After looking under all the stalls to make sure no one was listening, he said, “You hit ‘em high, and I’ll hit ‘em low. You’re going to be the State Department, and I’m going to be the War Department. But we’re going to be respectful of each other.” In our current anti-intellectual moment marked by vapid vitriol and toxic rage, such an expression of solidarity with an adversary seems counter-intuitive and strange. While Herb would argue for pushing change through litigation, legislation, and registration, Malcolm would call for reparations, land, and a return to the soul.
Malcolm stated his purpose for speaking at Yale Law School directly: “We have accepted your invitation to come here to Yale University Law School this evening to let you know first-hand why 20 million so-called Negroes cannot integrate with white America, why white America, after 100 years of religious hypocrisy and political trickery will never accept us as first-class citizens here.” Malcolm appealed for African-Americans to be given the “right to hold their heads up, and to live in dignity like other human beings.” Long before intersectionality was a buzzword, he traced how racism drove and shaped postcolonial conflicts in Congo, Algeria, South Africa, China, Cuba, and Panama.
At Yale Law, speaking to future foreign policy makers and legislators, Malcolm assailed America for its failure on the domestic and global stage to solve the race problem, and blamed this failure on western diplomats, learned politicians, theologians, legal experts, sociologists, and civil rights leaders. If there was to be a savior, he asked, would such a man of God “be someone from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Howard, or Tuskegee?” White or black? Theologian or preacher? Who best to deliver the world from “such propaganda, mass lies, mass suspicion, mass confusion, mass dissatisfaction, mass unrest, mass hatreds…and the ingredients for such mass bloodshed.”
Malcolm decried America’s “great loss of prestige” in the world despite the “advice of her expert advisors,” and noted the decline of British global influence: “when the sun rises, we can hardly find the British Empire.” He noted the oversized influence the American president exerts upon the world, noting that America’s “president is almost like a ‘god,’ for he has in his hands almost every other country on this earth” and thus the “eyes of even the foreign nations are turned toward the American elections” as they too must know “what type of man will be the next ‘god.’”
In his debate at Yale Law School, Malcolm X proposed Islam as a solution to the country and world’s ills. He said, “My friends, Islam is the religion taught by all of the prophets: Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. Islam is the true name of the religion God gave to the prophets in the past to cure their people of whatever moral or spiritual ailments that were afflicting them in that day.” One can only wonder how a black nationalist Muslim freedom fighter today would be received in reciting these exact words in such an elitist space – he or she would likely end up dead too, just sooner.
In front of the most elite crowd in education, Malcolm unflinchingly dared to speak truth to power, and exploited the privileged position of his audience at Yale Law to drive home his powerful argument for reparations. He stated: “If I were to collect the combined wages of everyone in this Yale University Law School auditorium tonight for just one week, I would have plenty of money. If I could work all of you for nothing for just one year I would be extremely rich. Well, what about the millions of black people who worked here in America as your slaves for over 300 years without one payday? What happened to their wages? Who collected the profits, or amassed the fortunes received from their free labor? Facing these unpleasant facts, surely you can easily see now how America became so rich so fast.” He personalized the matter, forcing his elite, white audience to step outside their privilege and into the subjectivity of black people by presenting a theoretical parallel to reveal the injustice of unpaid slave labor and just need for reparations.
When the debate at Yale Law concluded, Nation of Islam members wove through the crowd of elite white students to sell records with “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.” Malcolm and Herb would go on to spar at City College, but the race debate at Yale did not abate in the wake of their visit. When Strom Thurmond visited the Yale Political Union the following year, he defined himself as a “regular old-line Democrat of the states-rights, free-enterprise, and individual liberty, who feels that the New Deal-Fair Deal element pirated the party name and perverted it with socialism and communism.” Weeks after his visit, the Yale Political Union hosted Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, who attacked Thurmond’s views and passionately argued for the desegregation of schools in the south – his pleas were no match though for the conservative student coalition that voted down a resolution urging the federal government to push for desegregation.
Inspired by these debates on campus about race, a bunch of young men from Yale (led by Augustus Kingsolving) decided to spend their spring break studying racial injustice in the Deep South, where they planned to meet with representatives of the NAACP, the American Legion, and various civil rights groups. Along the way, as part of their scrappy “Project Truck,” they met with student president Jesse Jackson at North Carolina A&T, stayed on plantations owned by Yale alums, and attended white citizen councils that opposed integration. In our racially charged present, where white men are suspiciously absent from the front lines in dismantling racism, the civil rights activism of these and other privileged young white men from the 1960s seems even more radical than it was at the time.
As for Malcolm X and Herb Wright, in 1961 an undergraduate student named Richard Holbrooke at Brown University invited them both up to Providence for a debate, after the buzz about their stellar spar at Yale Law had spread. But when Malcolm arrived in Rhode Island, he was told that Herb would not be debating him after all, due to a new policy passed by the NAACP which barred members of the organization from debating him — so as not to dignify his views. Though Malcolm and Herb’s dueling days were done, their dynamite duet to be danced no more, they had become friends in the fire despite their differing views, and Malcolm was disappointed to have to give a speech at Brown — instead of ride high in another debate.
For Malcolm, debate was a super highway to personal and communal transformation. Rooted in ideas and facts, not opinions and feelings, debate was an honest and necessary act to reveal truth and convince even the most elite and hateful of his cause. It was not an exercise in civility but a radical strategy in facing one’s enemy head-on and pushing for social change. A debate was not passive or sedate – it was a public exorcism of hate. To win, Malcolm drew upon every asset he had, including his disarming wit – and often liked to smile when going in for the kill. There was joy in the hunt; a surety in victory not victimhood.
Malcolm X’s good friend Muhammad Ali, who himself relished a good fight, said of his friend: “He’s nothing but a fellow who was an ex-dope addict, a prisoner, a jailbird who had no education, couldn’t read or write, who heard about the honorable Elijah Muhammad, who took him off the streets, cleaned him up and educated him enough to go out and debate and you might say defeat any opponent that he met.” Any opponent that he met – be it Ivy League debates teams in jail or the youth president of the NAACP at Yale Law School.
Malcolm X began his speech at Yale Law School with an appeal for minds to “constantly be kept open” and he ended it with these parting words: “I trust you will weigh well these words.” He knew all too well that critical and open minds, along with rigorous and informed debate, are the bedrocks of a healthy democracy and any hope for justice and social change among the elite. In the halls of the Ivy League — Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown — the academic centers of elite power and privilege, Malcolm’s words were not censored or muzzled. He was given a stage to criticize American culture and politicians and make his case for the transcendent potential of Islam to heal personal and communal wounds.
Before he died, after coming back from hajj in Mecca, Malcolm X was no longer arguing for segregation or integration – but recognition as a human being. In his Easter Sunday sermon in 1961, Yale’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin, said: “Enough of these less than halfway measures! There is something pathetic about people running around lighting lights when what we need is to have the whole bloody night come to an end.” But our national nightmare marches on, as we look on in horror, light some more lights, and refuse to do the real work necessary to confront hate and elite corruption head-on and deliver what’s right with an unshakeable might.