Malcolm X Debates Floyd McKissick in 1963

Numerous formative events took place in the first months of 1963 that shaped the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement, and a number of those took place in North Carolina. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was especially active, and in January of that year, it organized a tour that brought writer James Baldwin through the state. In April 1963, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, the attorney and civil rights leader, organized a debate between himself and Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X over racial integration, and he sought to locate this event in his home of Durham, finally settling on a city-owned facility. The very afternoon of the event, however, they were suddenly left looking for a location when the city pulled its support. The shake-up at the last minute not only required a change in venue, but as options were quickly explored, the opportunity also arose for the two to debate publicly on the University of North Carolina campus the next day. This second debate is rarely mentioned today, but was covered in the UNC student newspaper at the time. Of additional interest, the Durham debate was documented by Herald-Sun photographer Harold Moore, and his unpublished photographs provide astonishing glimpses into an event that has received only brief attention.

Setting the Stage

The theme of the April debate was to be integration of the races versus separatism, with Floyd McKissick arguing the former, Malcolm X the latter. Malcolm X had been touring, recruiting for the Nation of Islam, and giving speeches that entire spring season. He was in Columbia, SC just a day before he arrived in Durham. McKissick was not only friendly with Black Muslims in Durham, but he served as attorney for both the Nation of Islam and the NAACP. In 1963, McKissick was elected Chairman of CORE.

When the debate was first proposed, both Duke University and North Carolina College (now NCCU) were considered, however the offer was rejected by both institutions. Eventually, a public auditorium was settled upon for the evening of Thursday, April 18th.

“Durham’s Black Muslims,” The Daily Tar Heel, April 10, 1963

The Nation of Islam and Malcolm X were frequent topics in the spring 1963 issues of the UNC student paper The Daily Tar Heel. March 5th saw the start of a four-part series by Henry Mayer dedicated to Black Muslims in America. In anticipation of the debate to be held just days away, the April 10, 1963 issue featured a full-page article called “Durham’s Black Muslims” by DTH editor Wayne King with photographs by Jim Wallace. The article features a photograph of Muhammad’s Mosque of Islam at 518 East Pettigrew in Durham, a center for Nation of Islam in the city, formed just the year before in 1962. The article also has a photograph of Marken’s Business Mart, listed in the 1963 Durham city directory as a car wash owned by Kenneth Murray at 402 East Pettigrew. The caption states that this establishment “may be financially affiliated with the movement.” The article names Murray, also known as Kenneth X, as minister of the Durham mosque, and a protégé of Baltimore’s Isaiah Karriem, a high-ranking figure in the movement.

Malcolm X arrived in Durham on April 18th to word that the debate was in jeopardy. At the last minute, their scheduled appearance at the city-owned Hill Recreation Center was abruptly canceled, their permit revoked by city officials. In a statement, Parks and Recreation head Harold Moses said that the Durham mosque that had scheduled the event had “misrepresented” themselves as a religious organization.

“Black Muslim Unit Denied Center’s Use,” Durham Morning Herald, April 19, 1963

Word spread fast and people took quick action. Wayne King, UNC student, interviewed Malcolm X on the phone about the cancellation, to which he responded, “the wrath of God would be called down upon the city of Durham for withholding the truth from the Negro people.”

To protest the denial of Malcolm X’s presence on her campus, NCC student Joycelyn McKissick, daughter of Floyd, transported him in her own car to a space where he could speak to her fellow students, earning her suspension from school for the transgression.

“Durham Hall Denied to Malcolm X,” The Daily Tar Heel, April 19, 1963

Black Muslims in Durham immediately rallied to provide a substitute venue for that night, albeit in a smaller, privately-owned space, and UNC student Henry Mayer helped to organize a debate on the same topic in Chapel Hill the next day.

The Debates

The debate in Durham did successfully take place on Thursday, April 18th, despite the last-minute change in location. The site was a place known locally as “Page’s Auditorium” at 1102 South Roxboro Road, a building owned by Wilbur W. Page. It was part of the building that also operated as Pine Street Taxi Company and Service Station. The Durham papers Morning Herald and Sun sent photographer Harold Moore to Page’s Auditorium that night. The Sun reported that about 150 people showed up for the debate on Roxboro Road, including many Duke students. Only a handful of articles covered the event, though, as what was published focused mainly on the controversy surrounding the location, and only used a head shot of Malcolm X. The following photographs, therefore, having never been in print, provide astounding views into a rare event in Durham’s history. The original negatives are part of the Durham Herald Co. Newspaper Photograph Collection.

 

 

 

“‘X’ Says Negroes Will Pass Whites,” The Daily Tar Heel, April 21, 1963

 

The hastily-arranged April 19th debate in Chapel Hill was first slated for Carroll Hall, then planned for Howell Hall, and finally, due to 1600 people overcrowding the building, moved to Memorial Hall. It was all organized by DTH journalist Henry Mayer and the Carolina Forum. Although photographs of this debate were not published in the student paper, and perhaps none exist, Bill Dowell does summarize some of the content in his April 21, 1963 DTH article. He quotes Malcolm X from that night: “The difference between liberals and conservatives is that the liberals have developed the art of using the Negro.”

The April 27th issue of the Carolina Times, their offices just down the street from the Muhammad’s Mosque of Islam on Pettigrew, announced, “Crowds Hear Muslim Debate: Throngs Attend in Durham, UNC; City Nixes Hall.” Considering that this article appeared on the front page, it is of note that editor Louis Austin also had a stated antipathy for his city’s Black Muslims.

Other noteworthy events that same month provide important context for these two debates: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham Campaign began in early April and he was jailed on April 12th. Two days before the debate in Durham, King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” On April 24th, Durham’s East End Elementary, a black school, was burned to the ground by an arsonist. Protests sparked when the dislocated students were not allowed to even temporarily attend another school with white children.