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Great Debates: James Baldwin and Malcolm X, September 1963

Nov 6, 2017 9:00:00 AM Erik Fogel malcolm x, james baldwin

"No label, no slogan, no party, no skin color, and indeed, no religion is more important than the human being."

- James Baldwin 

Both James Baldwin and Malcolm X were heroes of the civil rights movement. Baldwin's books, essays, and speeches painted a poignant portrait of black life in the United States prior to desegregation. Baldwin's observations, experiences, and reflections left him with a nuanced stance which was relatable to many Americans. His realism and relatable anecdotes touched a nerve with readers and listeners across the country. Less optimistic than Martin Luther King Jr. and too peaceful for the followers of Malcolm X, Baldwin's views made him unique in the civil rights movement. But it was Baldwin's public dialogue with iconic black leaders that helped refine our vision for a fair and equal America.  Malcom X, joined the debate team in prison and when released quicly became one of the leading and most outspoken civil rights leaders and advocates of black nationalism. View the: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JIp9_IIV3s

In 1963, James Baldwin was on a speaking tour. He had witnessed and participated in civil rights protests across the country and had much to discuss with Malcolm X during a radio broadcast on September 5th. The two men were at odds. James Baldwin was devastated and disheartened by the climate of race relations. He advocated strong and purposeful action but never wavered from peaceful methods. Malcolm X, by contrast, saw no path forward for black America without aggressively claiming rights for all oppressed peoples. He feared that any concessions made in the face of passive actions or pleas would be framed as gifts from the oppressors. Malcolm X maintained that equality could not be given; it had to be taken.

James Baldwin understood the plight and angst of Malcolm X. He was respectful and sympathetic to the ideas presented by the activist. But Baldwin never diverged from his peaceful stance. He said, "maintaining calm in the face of vitriol demands a tremendous amount of power." Baldwin believed that our success was tied into our ability to unite with and convert the oppressors. He saw socialist principles as the answer and disputed any suggestions to voluntarily separate ourselves from our brethren in order to achieve equality. It was a powerful and prophetic meeting of the minds. The debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin was part of an ongoing discussion about the path to equality. 

Baldwin and Malcom X taught us that we don't always have to agree. Honest, thorough, and heartfelt opinions will lead us in the right direction. When faced with a challenge as large as social equality, our voices can change the trajectory of the conversation, adjust the focus, and create empathy for the cause. It is our duty to express ourselves when injustice runs rampant. Contact us at the Debate League to learn more about the power of harnessing our voices to impact change in our community and our country.  

Erik Fogel

Written by Erik Fogel