Malcolm X Debates at Oxford: Classic Rhetorical Moves: To Be or Not to Be

Malcolm X

Malcolm X participated in a classic debate at Oxford Union, a special all university organization as part of Oxford University in England. The debate took place December 3, 1964.

He speaks in favor of the motion that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”.

Do you coach a debate team? Do you use debate with your students, from time to time?

Then your students surely have to watch debates on video, right? I know my students watch an incredible number of debates, and a diverse variety of speakers and speeches.

Why? Style. Rhetoric. Delivery. Rhythm. Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

Few speakers in few speeches, few debaters in few debates do what the following speaker did: Everything.

If you try to explain it, you will surely attribute it to the urgency of the moment. The times were revolutionary ones, transformational ones. It was the time of the great struggle for Civil Rights in the USA.

That is the context of the speech in this debate. But it doesn’t explain the greatness of the speech.

I call it passion, mixed with intellect, mixed with audacity, mixed with eloquence. Rhetoric, delivery, presence, rhythm, cadence, logic, intellect, this can be called many things. I would most likely agree with your assessment.

Beyond that, this is a video that a debater is required to study, for it holds many secrets of persuasive speech…

Enjoy Malcolm X, debating at Oxford University in 1964.

You’ll hear X’s trademark claim that liberty can be attained by “whatever means necessary,” including force, if the government won’t guarantee it, and that “intelligently directed extremism” will achieve liberty far more effectively than pacifist strategies. (He’s clearly alluding to Martin Luther King.)

I’d also encourage you to watch the dramatic closing minutes and pay some attention to the nice rhetorical slide, where X takes lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and uses them to justify his “by whatever means necessary” position.

You’d probably never expect to see Hamlet getting invoked that way, let alone Malcolm X speaking at Oxford. A wonderful set of contrasts.

Malcolm X: “I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think, it was, who said, ‘To be or not to be.’

He was in doubt about something—whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—moderation—or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

And I go for that. If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.

And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change.

People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme methods.

And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”


About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
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