Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Lesson in Persuasion from the Norfolk Prison Debate Team

Last year I received a call from Adam Bright who asked me if I’d tell him about the time I spent at Norfolk prison outside of Boston. Norfolk Prison started a debate team in the 1930’s and at first debated among themselves. Then they became more selective and competitive and began to invite formidable college debate teams every few weeks to the prison. Princeton, Yale, West Point, MIT, and Harvard were worthy opponents but by 1966, Norfolk had won 144 times and only lost 8 times.

It’s been a long time since my sophomore year at Emerson College when Professor Haig der Maderosian asked me to debate a murderer and an accused rapist on the morality of rock ‘n roll. I thought the professor was out of his mind! But eventually he convinced me and another 18 yr-old coed, Cindy Whalen, that it would sharpen our skills for upcoming college tournaments.

We began weeks of research and visited the prison a couple of times before the actual debate to size up the situation. At the entry-way, it was very unnerving to have the huge gate clang shut behind us and look up to see two guards with rifles. We ate dinner with the prisoners and chatted as if this were a regular Saturday night out. I never saw any women prisoners and Cindy and I dressed as modestly as possible.

Obviously, the prisoners had a lot of time to spend in their well-stocked library which provided them with national newspapers, government publications and up-to-date cultural, political and scientific books and magazines. (Human rights activist Malcolm X spent 2 yrs at Norfolk. He studied and joined the debate team which laid the groundwork on his path to becoming an eloquent speaker. )
Over the years, the three-person panel of judges for the debates included lawyers, judges, priests, professors and respected citizens. Both teams would be judged on delivery skills, evidence, and the ability to persuade. The night of the debate, I thought Cindy and I did rather well showing evidence of the bad influence rock and roll music and lyrics had on young people. Unfortunately, as Cindy and I smashed records on stage, hundreds of prisoners started singing all the dirty lyrics and drowned us out. The prison debaters were smart and ridiculed our statistics. They had done their homework and cited references I had never heard of and couldn’t refute. We lost and it was obvious the clapping, stomping hall of prisoners approved the decision.

This unforgettable experience was widely publicized and it was the only time I made Time magazine and the front page of Hollywood’s Variety and the Moscow’s Daily Worker. It definitely influenced my preparation and ability to deal with shrewd competitors in future debates.

Today I received an invitation to attend the public premiere of Stories from the Norfolk Prison Debate Team on May 26th at the Norfolk town library. There will eventually be an archived oral history for libraries, a radio documentary and a book about the debating teams that continued into the 1970's. Adam has put enormous effort into interviewing and finding the living prison and college debaters, judges and townspeople. I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the celebration. I might have run into the murderer who was my silver-tongued opponent.


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