Monday, February 20, 2012

What follows is a REALLY long Neo-Aristotelian criticism of Malcolm X's last speech a week before he passed. You might want to get some snacks.

The 1960’s were a very turbulent time in American history, particularly in Black American history. The 1950’s and 1960’s encompassed a struggle against segregation for Black Americans, a struggle which saw the formation of organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) , the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the “Nation of Islam”(NOI) movement. Each of the varying organizations were distinguished from the other by their philosophical beliefs in how the goal of equality would be reached.


The Nation of Islam movement rose to notoriety behind one of its chief advocates, a fiery young man named Malcolm X. Malcolm X was instrumental to the NOI because of his speaking ability, his keen intellect, and his courage in doing what he felt needed to be done. For many who lived through that era, he was a polarizing individual. The general perception of him among White America was that he hated all Whites and wanted to kill and remove them. His ideals of self-defense were touted as calls to violence by most of the media, and many of the Black American leaders in the Civil Rights movement were in favor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideology of non-violent protest.

As a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X taught and believed that Black Americans, if they could not attain to freedom and justice, should fight for it “by any means necessary”. However, near the end of his life, Malcolm X experienced an interesting change of heart. After being taught by Elijah Muhammad (a central leader in the Nation of Islam) that the white man was a “blue-eyed devil” who, being inherently evil, could never come to know God (Allah) or even be a Muslim, Malcolm X rejected this belief after an educational trip overseas. His rejection of this belief, coupled with his discovery of hypocrisy on the part of Elijah Muhammad, and growing tensions within the organization, led him to reject the entire belief system of the Nation of Islam and convert to the Sunni sect of Islam. His turning away resulted in the Nation of Islam threatening his and his family’s life on numerous occasions.

On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X gave his last public speech in Ford Auditorium. Previous to this speech, on August 28, 1963, a massive peaceful protest had been staged in Washington, which culminated in Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, which called for equality and justice non-violently. This protest led to more and more Black Americans throughout the South mobilizing for equality non-violently. Though no longer a member of the Nation of Islam, it was no secret that Malcolm X did not belief in peacefully standing by while violence happened around him. In fact, Ebony magazine published a picture of Malcolm X shows him standing in his house, with an M1 carbine, peering out of the window of his home. Malcolm was known for his stance that violence should be met with violence.
The morning before his speech, an attempt had been made on Malcolm’s life and the life of his family. The home that he, his wife and his children lived in was firebombed while he and his family slept. Malcolm was able to escape, along with his family, but only with a few clothes and other possessions. The firebombing took place in February 14, 1965. That night, Malcolm was scheduled to speak at the Ford Auditorium, in his hometown of Detroit. This was the last speech that he gave outside of New York before he was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Rhetor (Speaker)

Up until the point when Malcolm X left the NOI, he had been solely speaking about their beliefs in his speeches. These included beliefs that white men were creations of a scientist called Yakub, and that Black people shouldn’t just be segregated, but that they should separate entirely from America and form their own nation independent from the American government. However, after he and the Nation of Islam parted ways, Malcolm, in his speeches and in interviews and conversations with friends, showed that his personal philosophies had changed greatly from those displayed in his previous speeches. He himself said he had been a “ventriloquist’s dummy” for the Nation of Islam for twelve years, and he regretted that what he had said and done as a “Black zombie”. Malcolm X had come to realize two things: that all white men were not devils, nor did they all have ill intent towards him and the Black race, and secondly, he’d come to realize that the general public viewed him as racist and hateful because of his time spent as the sounding piece of the Nation of Islam. Further, Malcolm no longer sought for the complete segregation of the Black race, but rather, for integration and equality, as evidenced by his reaching out to the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in 1964, an action he had until then refused to take.
The change in Malcolm X’s viewpoints led to him fighting to change his image, often blaming his previous actions on Elijah Muhammad’s interference. For instance, in 1964 when he reached out to leaders of the civil rights movement he was quoted as having said that Elijah Muhammad had previously prevented him from supporting their cause.


The event at which Malcolm X spoke that night was actually an awards ceremony called the "First Annual Dignity Projection and Scholarships Award Night" sponsored by the Afro American Broadcasting Company. According to the program from that night, Malcolm X was the scheduled keynote and final speaker for that evening. The program goes on to state that the Afro American Broadcast Company was “an African American organization that was formed in 1964 primarily to produce radio programs that ‘met with our approval as spiritually free black people’ . The organization began in 1964 to produce and distribute its own radio programs about the African American experience to radio stations throughout the northeastern United States. The organization was formed in response to dissatisfaction in the African American community with the content and character of radio programs produced about African Americans on "white radio stations". The purpose of the event held that Valentine's Day in 1965 was to raise money by selling tickets to the event itself. The money was to be used to provide scholarships to Afro American youth to enter the field of ‘mass communications’. Malcolm X was particularly interested in supporting the African American media at this time because he recognized the importance of his speeches being accurately reported to the public by the media.” (

The audience in attendance was one, that according to the program, felt that many of the Civil Rights leaders were “venal and subservient”, and while there is no visual documentation to ascertain the makeup of the audience, undoubtedly, the event itself can help us draw the conclusion that the men and women in attendance were supporters of the Civil Rights movement, the majority of which were undoubtedly Black Americans. It’s to these individuals that Malcolm addresses his speech, and his choice of phrasing and diction only serves to affirm this conclusion. As Malcolm himself states in the speech, he is very relaxed in his tone. He uses several colloquial terms, such as “Good night!” He quotes Bible verses, although he himself is Muslim, which would lead one to believe that he is appealing to Black civil rights activists since the overwhelming majority of them, particularly those that believed in nonviolent protests, were professed Christians.

Invention: Ethos (Character)

Malcolm X begins to build his ethos from the very start of his speech. At the start, he begins to construct a character with an appeal to the pathos of the audience. His first few sentences deal with the attack on his life, which he uses constructs as a means to build upon his own ethos, or character. He mentions that his wife and children were also in the house that was attacked, but that his wife, and particularly his children, understood what he was doing and would rather he continue on his course than “grow up in shame and in disgrace”. Here, Malcolm X is painting himself as a person who will not even let fear for his own life or the lives of his own family to stand between him and his goals, and what he believes to be right.
Next, Malcolm X takes steps to build his ethos in the eyes of his audience. He alludes to the Nation of Islam as the “Black Muslim movement”. This choice of words aligns him more with his audience, since it removed the religious aspects of the Nation of Islam and lowered it to being simply a “movement”, which carries the connotation of it as being a fad, or something that was popular and served a purpose, but would fade as soon as that purpose faded. Also, many of his audience used the term “Black Muslim movement” to describe the Nation of Islam, either derisively or otherwise.

As Malcolm continues speaking, he constantly establishes his ethos by connecting himself to his audience. In another instance, he acknowledges that he is a Muslim. Then he carefully makes an interesting distinction. Instead of using this to set himself apart, by mentioning what he doesn’t believe about the Christian faith, he instead highlights the monotheistic commonality of the two faiths. Malcolm X tells the crowd that he believes in the God who created the universe. He then clarifies the use of the word Allah, saying simply that the Jews called him Jehovah, and “if you could understand Hebrew, you’d call him Jehovah too. If you could understand Arabic, you’d call him Allah.” Here, logos or logic is used to support the established ethos of Malcolm’s character of being similar to his listeners. They believe in the same God, and if they spoke a different language, or were under a different government, they would both presumably be Muslim.

Logos (Logic)

As he establishes his connection to his audience, Malcolm X then refers to an “African revolution”, one that frightens not only the United States, but France and Great Britain as well, since “there are so many people of African ancestry within the domestic confines or jurisdiction of these various governments.” Interestingly enough, Malcolm doesn’t refer to these people as “citizens” of these governments, which would be the case in the United States. By referring to all people of African ancestry as merely residing within the confines of the various governments, he is removing the barrier of nationalism. His intended audience is Black Americans who are struggling for equality in their own country. Malcolm X skillfully removes any allegiances to America or nationalistic tendencies of his listeners by grouping them all together as being of African ancestry and all within the confines of some ruling power.

Malcolm X then pauses to talk about his travels throughout Europe and Africa, and how he had seen the unity and industriousness of Africans around the world that he had not seen in Black Americans, specifically how many of the Black Americans in other countries had turned their backs on the struggles they had left behind. He then contrasts them with the South African refugees he’d met in Ghana, who were still concerned with their compatriots back home. Here is a skillful enthymeme on Malcolm’s part. By comparing the struggles of South Africans with that of Black Americans, Malcolm unites all Black Americans, though during that time there was a divide between the two, in fact, a divide that Malcolm himself addresses later in his speech. Here, the central theme of Malcolm’s discourse, however, is unity, not just nationally, but globally, and by establishing this contrast, he first presents the unspoken idea that Black Americans not in America are still related to the ongoing Civil Rights struggle by proxy, and then by contrasting them with the South Africans in Ghana, he reinforces the idea that they too are just as much a part of a struggle for what he termed “human rights”.

Malcolm continues to call for global unity among those of African descent when he mentions that any one of the members of the audience in attendance could “look as much Congolese as a Congolese does.” He goes on to ask how they would answer for their government’s action in the Congo. This again is an enthymeme, one that places the audience in a strange place. Malcolm X is asserting that because one is American, he supports everything the American government does by default. In fact, he says that they would be unable to say otherwise without going to an extreme to prove they didn’t support US actions in the Congo.

This same enthymeme makes one of Malcolm X’s second points: returning violence with violence in what he terms self-defense. From a civil standpoint, this is an extremely foolish strategy. Blacks in America during the 1960’s were a true minority, both in numbers and in terms of power. However, from a global perspective, one in which those of African and Hispanic decent were a majority, this was a legitimate strategy. Malcolm X never paints this philosophy in the context of the Civil Right movement, however, focusing on the global perspective. When he mentions the violence of the US, every time he mentions their violence domestically, it is in conjunction with their “brutality” overseas. Even in the example he mentions of an incident of violence, in which a sheriff attacked a Black woman, he mentions that he himself was overseas when he saw it. He paints an interesting metaphor of brute force as a “language” and then applies it to the concept of negotiations between two people who don’t speak the same language. As he suggests, understanding and communication can only come about when brute force is met with brute force, but he skillfully phrases it almost playfully when he says, “once you know his language, learn how to speak his language, and he'll get the point. There'll be some dialogue, some communication, and some understanding will be developed.” His point is made even more strongly by his account of the warning he wired to George Lincoln Rockwell. This real life account of violence producing results emphasizes this idea of brute force as a language. Again, when speaking of violence in this context, Malcolm X addresses it almost playfully, ending the statement saying jokingly that he “hasn’t heard from Rockwell since”.
Malcolm X’s continues to call for unity when he condemns the press and the government’s manipulation it. Malcolm first highlights the hypocrisy of the press in its depiction of him, by recalling an anecdote in which a white woman after having spoken to him for thirty minutes is shocked to discover that he is Malcolm X. He uses the story to emphasize his statement: “No matter what the [white] man says, you better look into it”. Later in his speech he again criticizes the press and its handling of the Harlem riots, clearly showing his listeners the bias in how the riots were reported. Then he highlights how a similar bias was shown by the press in its coverage of the bombing of the Congo. Again, Malcolm X is emphasizing the similarities between people of African descent, and deemphasizing the geographic and cultural distance between Black Americans and their African counterparts.


Malcolm X was fully aware of the popular perception of him. Many viewed him as a racist who advocated violence, no better than the White men he actively condemned. In this speech, we can see that instead of just establishing his character at the beginning and then presenting his logical persuasion, he starts off establishing his character and then continues to establish his character throughout the entire speech. Some of this may be to offset the inflammatory nature of the speech itself, or even just part of a campaign by Malcolm X to revamp his image, but in either case, the decision to continue building his ethos is clearly a conscious one, and not by chance.

The speech itself, in the speaker’s effort to promote a global world view often gives examples of a local nature, then compares those to examples of an international level. This again builds into his overall theme of unity among “people of African descent”.


Malcolm X’s style reveals his intended audience. His use of colloquial phrases, the calmness of his delivery, coupled with the simplicity of his words helps him reach his intended audience. As aforementioned, Malcolm X uses several colloquial terms in his speech, and is extremely conversational in the way he talks. He even mentions that he likes to speak in an informal or relaxed manner, since as he says, “Whenever you and I are discussing our problems we need to be very objective, very cool, calm, collected.” Several times, Malcolm calls those in the crowd “brothers and sisters”. This phrase itself invokes the idea of unity, painting a picture that all of those of African descent, and their sympathizers were all united as if by blood.


Video of this speech isn’t available, however, there is audio preserved of it. Listening to the audio of Malcolm X speak, several things stand out. His voice is of a calm nature, which he uses to support the enthymeme he creates stating that approaching things and appearing calm is approaching them rationally or logically. Throughout his speech, the audience can be heard laughing and applauding in response to Malcolm X’s speech. No doubt this speech was tailored to mirror the popular speeches of Southern Black ministers in its informality, wit, and smoothness.


Was Malcolm X truly effective in reaching his audience? At first, one is inclined to say no. History has painted Malcolm X in a cruel light, as a man who was an advocate of violence, a man who wanted to see the destruction of the entire White race.

However, as you listen to the audio of his speech you can hear the audience applauding many of his talking points. One of the main goals that Malcolm X had in this speech was to humanize himself, to remove the image of a man filled hatred and bile towards the White race, and replace it as a man who was willing to fight when he deemed it necessary for survival. As you listen to the audience’s reaction to his speech, it’s clear that he accomplished this goal. They are not silent, or quietly listening to what he has to say, but they are applauding and even laughing at the way he says it. I believe that any Civil Rights activists who were in attendance at this speech would come away with the idea that Malcolm X wasn’t a man advocating violence and murder, but a man who would fight against it unflinchingly in order to protect his family and his people.

As far as creating a sense of unity for those of African descent, it’s harder for one to determine whether or not Malcolm X was truly successful with that goal. Whether or not anyone in that audience viewed the world in a different way is difficult to ascertain. The argument could be made that just by sharing what he did with each member of that audience that he was able to alter their perception, but as we look back through history, we can see that often times the struggle for equality in America, though it members of that struggle frequently made use of the African continent as a symbol, has been focused solely on America. If the focus of this speech was to move

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