Tonight the Smithsonian Channel will present a documentary that offers extracts of rare films of Malcolm X’s speeches.
I can make a unique claim. I sat in a mostly white audience to hear a lecture by Malcolm X in the spring of 1962. For one semester, I was an undergraduate student at UCLA. Some campus organization invited Malcolm X to speak. I would estimate in retrospect that he had about 200 people in attendance. He spoke in the student union.
I don’t think many white people ever saw him speak in person. I’m glad that I did.
I was a good public speaker in 1962. On the basis of a 1959 speech, I was elected president of my high school student body. I knew how to persuade a crowd. I did a lot of public speaking after 1959. I thought at the time that Malcolm was a highly effective master of rhetoric. I have not changed my opinion.
GRAMMAR, LOGIC, AND RHETORIC
Every effective speech has three components: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This was the insight of novelist and playwright Dorothy Sayers in 1947 in her classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” National Reviewsent it as a stapled insert in 1961. I read it. I believed it. So, I was quite familiar with what Malcolm X was doing as he spoke. His grammar was flawless. His logic was flawed. His rhetoric was spectacular.
I remember very clearly his misuse of the Bible. He was speaking in front of a white audience. He may have thought that most of them had been influenced by either Christianity or Judaism. So, he quoted the section of Exodus 20 that presents the Ten Commandments.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me (vv. 4-5).
He used this passage in an attempt to prove that the sins of white Americans against blacks would never end by means of repentance by whites. Immediately, I spotted what he was doing. He was justifying the fact that the Nation of Islam, better known as the Black Muslims, was unwilling to seek any kind of reconciliation with whites. Why should they? After all, whites could not repent. The sins of the fathers would carry down through the generations. This was basic NOI doctrine. I knew this because I had read C. Eric Lincoln’s book on the NOI, The Black Muslims in America (1961).
I suspected, then as now, that Malcolm really believed this in 1962. Officially, Muslims accept the truth of the Bible. That was also true of Black Muslims. They just didn’t understand the Bible. They shared this in common with at least 98% of the students listening to Malcolm at UCLA.
I was not taken in by his logic, meaning his “theologic.” First, the text does not say that specific sins are inevitable, generation by generation. It does imply that God will visit — impose negative sanctions on — sinners down through the generations if they persist in their sins. Second, he left out the crucial passage on this judicial issue in the Old Testament: “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16). From a biblical standpoint, this verse completely undermined his position on inter-generational white guilt.
Malcolm was a master of rhetoric. When he made his case for black separation, he demonized the whites. This was basic to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam had what direct response marketers call a USP: a unique selling proposition. The NOI’s USP was simple: blacks are inherently good, while whites are inherently evil. Whites were created by selective breeding by a black scientist, Yacub, about 6,600 years ago.
MALCOLM MEETS HIS MATCH
I had already seen Malcolm in action on local television. I saw him on the weekly late-night local TV show hosted by Tom Duggan. I wrote this in 2011.
Duggan invited crackpots and weirdos onto his weekly show. It was a Saturday night late show watched by very few college students. I was a devoted fan. Malcolm came on. It was the lamb going to the slaughter. He never knew what hit him. He was sharper than Duggan, but Duggan was not about to be guilt-manipulated. I shall never forget Duggan’s parting shot. “Malcolm, my great grandfather fought for the Union to free the slaves. You are an ungrateful man.” Then he cut to a commercial. Malcolm was gone after the commercial, or might as well have been. Playing the race card with Duggan, a retired Marine who had served in the South Pacific in World War II, and who got his start on the radio by challenging a Chicago mobster, was not going to work. That completely undermined Malcolm’s “make the white guy crawl” routine.
Duggan was not relying on logic. He was using rhetoric. His rhetoric was a lot better than Malcolm’s was.
(Almost nobody remembers Duggan these days. But one man does, whose career was launched by Duggan when he went on TV as a replacement when Duggan failed to show up because he was drunk: Regis Philbin. He got the bug for being on TV from that one-time stint as Duggan’s replacement. I wrote about this here.)