In recent years America has had an explosion in debates about the academy and who should have the right to speak to college audiences. Debates about the utility and practice of free speech form a particularly important current of modern intellectual discussion. I am sure that, down the road, historians will look back on our era and recognize how debates about freedom of speech—whether in the academy or the corporate world—were an important part of modern era.
However, today I want to look back and consider the importance of debate to the African American intellectual tradition. Much of African American intellectual history can be seen as intellectuals—whether preachers, academics, journalists, or other community leaders—participating in a debate over the very humanity of African Americans. Books like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning show us just how long this debate has lasted—to the very founding of the American Republic. But whatever form it has taken, African American intellectuals have often felt a responsibility to get involved.
Two debates immediately come to mind. One, described in detail by David Levering Lewis in his magisterial biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, was his 1920s era debate with Lothrop Theodore Stoddard. This debate was in many ways symbolic of the politics and intellectual milieu of the 1920s. Du Bois stood in for the NAACP and the progressive, anti-racist left against the anti-immigration and virulent white supremacist Stoddard. The debate was held in Chicago and, according to eye-witness accounts, was in front of a largely African American audience. Du Bois proceeded to dismantle a wide range of arguments from Stoddard, even touching the thorny topic of interracial marriage.
Another debate worth looking at is one between Martin Luther King, Jr. and columnist James J. Kilpatrick in 1960. Concerning the legality of sit-ins, King argued that college students had the right to follow a higher law of morality. Responding, Kilpatrick argued that such a train of thought was dangerous and gave people the license to disobey practically any law they wished. King’s performance was seen by many of his supporters as being a missed opportunity, with Ella Baker, a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement and at that point having just helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, arguing that “he had not forced himself to analytically come to grips with these issues.” The debate also caused King to think deeper about the links between civil rights and constitutional history, sharpening his debating skills for the rest of the 1960s.
These are just two examples of what I’m talking about in terms of actual debate by African American leaders with those who were against equal rights for black people. What might make today different from previous eras is that it seems the need to debate anti-black ideas is more of a choice and less of a necessity than ever—but still, sadly, important in the grand scheme of modern political discourse. Where so much digital ink was spilled on the “feud” between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, there is a much more worrying issue involving African American intellectuals. The lack of writing from free speech advocates about the causes of Zandria Robinson, Saida Grundy, and Johnny Williams for example, speak not only to the ideological biases of many modern free speech advocates, but also to the tradition of African American academics often being canaries in the coal mine for issues of free speech on college campuses. African American intellectuals still pay a steep price for speaking out in public on a wide range of issues—and pay even more when they offer radical solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, p. 497-498.
 William P. Hustwit, James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for Segregation, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2013, p. 110-113.