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Great Debates in History: Jackson and Falwell Clash Over Apartheid, September 1985

by Erik Fogel | Nov 1, 2017 9:00:00 AM |

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On September 4, 1985, Ted Koppel presided over a televised debate on ABC's Nightline between Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Jerry Falwell, during which the two men discussed the issue of South African apartheid. Neither Jackson nor Falwell was an expert on the topic, as Koppel noted, remarking that ''if I was picking a panel of the people who know most about the issue, even if it was 50 people on each side, I'm not sure I'd pick either man.'' But the opponents had exchanged heated words on the subject two weeks earlier on Good Morning America to much media attention, and the network was confident that a more formal rematch would draw enthusiastic viewers.  Click to view televised debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLBG8TVPhb8

While both Jackson and Falwell condemned the apartheid regime, the two men strongly disagreed about what actions the U.S. should take in response to the South African crisis. Jackson, a civil rights activist and former Democratic presidential candidate, was vocal in his condemnation of apartheid, stating that "a system built on race is ungodly and unmoral and it is immoral and cannot stand." He believed that economic sanctions would pressure the South African government into dismantling its system of institutionalized racial segregation.

Falwell, a televangelist and founder of the political action committee called the Moral Majority, disagreed. Having recently returned from a highly publicized trip to South Africa, Falwell contended that blacks in South Africa were far more likely to suffer from economic sanctions than whites, and that fracturing the U.S. relationship with South Africa would threaten American national security. "I believe we can cut out the cancer without killing the patient and handing over to the Soviet Union one more nation," he argued, evoking concerns about the rise of communism and suggesting that sanctions would destroy South Africa. Koppel summarized Falwell's disagreement with Jackson as a matter of differing premises: "You [Jackson] see it as a moral issue; you [Falwell] see it as a geopolitical issue."

The discussion ultimately devolved into a series of personal attacks as the two traded barbs about Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King, Jr., leading the next day's issue of The Washington Post to conclude that the debate was "insubstantive, repetitious and finally rather irrelevant."

The lesson: ad hominem attacks have no place in a good debate. You can join your school's debate team to learn more debating do's and don'ts.

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