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…