The Debaters

March 10, 2008

The current issue of Columbia Magazine spotlights William Neal Brown, who while a professor of social work at Rutgers University found himself called upon to debate Malcolm X in the fall of 1961 on the issue of racial integration versus separation. The whole article is worth your time, for its local and national interest, its dual portraits of two extraordinary men, and its picture of a time and an argument that aren’t all that far from the present.

The debate took place in November 1961 on the Newark campus of Rutgers University, in the heart of a rigidly segregated city that was only a few years away from exploding. Malcolm X was at the peak of his stature within the separatist Nation of Islam movement: over the next four years he would have a very public and acrimonious parting of the ways with the Nation and its leader Elijah Muhammad, convert to traditional Islam and begin reaching out to the civil rights leaders he had previously scorned as “Uncle Toms ” and “professional Negroes.” When Malcolm X was shot down in 1965, one man convicted in the crime and two others who were implicated but never arrested had links to Temple Number 25 in Newark, the very NOI mosque that the Newark debate helped establish.

Though Malcolm X had a well deserved reputation as a ruthless and witty debater, Brown was nobody’s pushover. As one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary black fighter pilots of World War II, Brown had risen through the ranks of the military and encountered all the humiliations, large and small, that a segregated society could throw at a black American. Columbia professor Manning Marable, who is wrapping up a new biography of Malcolm X, recounts the way Brown dealt with his opponent’s provocative debate tactics:

At one point, Malcolm described the “modern Uncle Tom” as one who “speaks with a Harvard accent, an Oxford accent, and sometimes a Rutgers accent.” The line drew laughter and applause. Brown coolly dismissed Malcolm’s barbs as part of a “canned speech” that Malcolm had delivered in other cities and that served to distract from Brown’s points about the logistical impracticalities of creating a separate black state.

“I was a talented debater,” Brown said many years afterward. “I figured I could take Malcolm X.”

Whether he did or not is a matter of opinion.

“Brown’s perception is that he won the debate,” Marable says. “But if you had done a poll, I think that 90 percent of the people in the audience would have said that Malcolm won hands down.”

At the conclusion of the program, a PR person from Rutgers handed Brown the reel-to-reel tape of the event. Brown put the tape in his briefcase, and as he left the building he bumped into Malcolm X. “Malcolm said to me, ‘That was really nice. We should do it again in the Polo Grounds,’” Brown recalled with a laugh.

Six days later, Brown received a postcard from Phoenix. The card showed a beat-up wooden shack in the ghost town of White Hills, Arizona. On the back was a handwritten note: It’s better to live in a shack that you own, than in someone else’s mansion. It was signed Malcolm X.

Brown’s recording of the debate has only recently come to light, and the Columbia Magazine article includes some excerpts that are seeing the light of day for the first time in over forty years.

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