Malcolm X: Black power amid dreaming spires

Stephen Tuck revisits Malcolm X’s historic 1964 speech at the Oxford Union and explains why his words so electrified the audience...

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

On the evening of 3 December 1964, a most unlikely figure was called to speak at the Oxford Union: Mr Malcolm X. It seemed quite a mismatch. The Oxford Union, the most prestigious debating society in the world, was the self-styled training ground for the politically ambitious of Britain’s young intellectual elite. Malcolm X, by contrast, was the global icon of revolutionary black nationalism. A one-time Harlem hustler and prison inmate, by 1964 Malcolm X was (in)famous for his call to oppose racism by “any means necessary”. When he arrived in Oxford, he was under a death threat (from former colleagues in the Nation of Islam, a religious movement), and the FBI was on his tail.

The peculiarity of his presence among the scions of the British establishment was not lost on Malcolm X. “I remember clearly that the minute I stepped off the train, I felt I’d suddenly backpedalled into Mayflower-time,” he told a friend. “The students were wearing caps and gowns as if they graduated the first day they arrived… and they were riding bicycles that should’ve been dumped long ago.” One of the first students he met, beset by nerves, could hardly speak in Malcolm X’s presence. Malcolm X wondered whether he had made a mistake accepting the invitation.

It didn’t help when the hotel receptionist, who had never heard of him, insisted that he write his surname in full in the guest book – rather than just an X. Nor did the motion he was due to support: ‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue’ was a quotation from the arch-conservative American presidential candidate of that year, Barry Goldwater, who had campaigned against civil rights legislation.

The start of the debate made matters worse. Malcolm X’s main opponent, Humphry Berkeley, a conservative MP, accused him of being a racist on a par with the architects of South African apartheid, and mocked Malcolm’s use of X as a surname. Malcolm X admitted later that he came as close as he could remember to losing his temper.

For all the awkwardness, though, Malcolm X and the Union turned out to be a fitting, and powerful, combination. In his prison days, he had developed a love of debate (one of the few recreational activities on offer), and during his time giving talks as a leading figure in the Nation of Islam, he found that “he liked the college audiences best”. Student minds were still “alive and searching”, he wrote later, and as a result, “college sessions never failed to be exhilarating”.

 

Razor-sharp

For their part, members of the Union admired fine rhetoric and relished controversy. Malcolm X gave them plenty of both. A brilliant orator with a razor-sharp intellect, the human rights activist was able to cite literature, dissect international politics, or trade insults, as needed. The BBC sent its cameras to broadcast the speech. Malcolm X’s friend, the black arts poet and filmmaker Lebert Bethune, travelled to the debate just “to see the sacrosanct image of Oxford shattered by the fist of revolutionary logic”.

The blow landed most heavily against Humphry Berkeley. “He is right. X is not my real name.” That had been taken by Berkeley’s forefathers, Malcolm X explained, coolly, who had raped and pillaged their way through Africa. “I just put X up there to keep from wearing his [Berkeley’s] name.”

The Oxford Union president, Eric Abrahams, admitted later: “I have never been as sorry for a man as I was for Humphry Berkeley that night, because… I mean, he just tore him up.”

Malcolm X then captivated his audience with a masterclass in oratory. The students laughed when he feigned ignorance of Shakespeare and then quoted from Hamlet. They listened attentively to his critique of the American Congress’s committee structure. And some booed when he blamed President Lyndon Johnson for the recent murder of white missionaries in the Congo. Malcolm X lost the vote, but he won plenty of admirers. Lebert Bethune judged it “one of the most stirring speeches I have ever heard delivered by Malcolm X”.

Historians of Malcolm X agree. The speech is widely recognised as one of the greatest of the 20th century. Little recognised, but more important, though, is why the Union invited him, and why Malcolm X felt he needed to come – and what the combination of American black power and the dreaming spires of Oxford reveals about the transatlantic struggle for equality in the 1960s.

In global terms, this was a decade of an American civil rights movement and protest against apartheid in South Africa, of the fall of European empires and the rise of a British Commonwealth of newly independent nations. In Britain, this was a period of rapid immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and south Asia, and of widening access to higher education (from within Britain, in terms of class, and from around the Commonwealth, in terms of colour).

Unexpectedly, Oxford had become something of a focal point for the question of race equality in Britain. The invitation was sent by Eric Abrahams, a charismatic Jamaican and outspoken opponent of white supremacy and empire. When Abrahams arrived at Oxford, the year that Jamaica gained independence, he told his sister, who was visiting: “Before I leave here I will be president of the Oxford Union. And I’ll fill the room with blacks.”

In the summer of 1964, following protests against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the university authorities had put Abrahams and some Union friends under curfew. The story hit the newspapers. Malcolm X, not the more moderate Martin Luther King, was Abrahams’ hero. A Zambian student Louis Nthenda, who had bumped into Malcolm X in Kenya, brokered the invitation, and Abrahams followed up. He did indeed “fill the room with blacks” – many white students remember being startled by just how many black faces were in the audience at the historic Union chamber.

United they stand Malcolm X chats with Eric Abrahams – the Oxford Union president who vowed to “fill the room with blacks” – before giving his famous address on 3 December 1964. (Getty)

 

Oxford on fire

Malcolm X knew something of Oxford’s news. He accepted the invitation “without hesitation”, he told Abrahams, because Oxford was “on fire” about the race issue.

When Malcolm X arrived, Oxford was, in fact, hotter than he could have expected. Three days before the debate, students released a widely publicised report exposing the fact that almost two thirds of Oxford’s university landladies refused to accept black students as lodgers. The presence of racially segregated student housing in the intellectual heart of the English establishment shattered the presumption, in the British mainstream press, at least, that the race problem was ‘over there’ (in the American south or South Africa). More than 1,000 students, including Abrahams, became paid-up members of an anti-racism campaign. An embarrassed university sought a negotiated, quiet, resolution to the housing issue. Malcolm X’s arrival allowed them no such thing.

For Malcolm X, coming to Europe provided the logical next step after months of travel in the Middle East and Africa. During the spring of 1964 he visited Mecca, on the Hajj, and then in the summer and autumn he sought to persuade various heads of African states to petition the United Nations on behalf of African-Americans. Visiting Oxford allowed him to connect with the next generation of post-colonial leaders – Oxford had the second largest cohort of non-white visiting students in the country. From Oxford he travelled to Sheffield, Manchester and London, to meet with Muslim and black students.

Coming to the Union also provided him with an iconic platform from which to outline his views. He had long since left behind his racial dogmatism (in which he argued that all white people were doing the Devil’s work), and had developed a compelling (though still staunchly anti-American) global vision for human rights. Frustrated by his stereotype as a somewhat pathologically violent and racist extremist, he was eager to get his message out. What better way, than by triumphing at the world-renowned Oxford Union?

Malcolm X’s speech, refined in the cauldron of an Oxford Union debate, and captured on film, stands as the clearest, most powerful articulation of his thought before he died. He argued, with appeals to reason and emotion in equal measure, that the entrenched, globally interconnected nature of white privilege demanded a united, forthright – extreme – response by all those who were committed to liberty and justice.

The speech did not mark the end of Malcolm X’s intellectual development. Coming to England, and meeting with black British immigrants as well as students, caused him to reflect, for the first time, on the ability of the western media to frame dissenters as rebellious extremists, and the establishment as reasoned moderates – a critique that resonates with contemporary concerns.

Malcolm X returned to Britain in February, and predicted racial unrest. “There’s trouble for Old John Bull,” he noted in his diary, and he planned to see it in person – but he was shot dead, later that month, at a rally in Harlem.

In turn, Malcolm X’s visit was certainly not the end of Oxford’s engagement with race. In 2014, Oxford’s ‘I, Too, campaign’, where students from ethnic minorities held up slogans in front of iconic buildings to highlight the way in which they believe they are ‘Othered’ by the Oxford community, gained worldwide press coverage.

Remembering Malcolm X’s visit to Oxford 50 years later, then, is more than a celebration of rhetoric. The combination of an American black radical in the midst of his travels at a historic white British university in turmoil reminds us of the global scope of the struggle for racial equality, and the international vision of so many of its activists.

Professor Stephen Tuck is director of TORCH - The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

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