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Authentic revolutionary: two books on Malcolm X

Daniel Whittall reviews two books looking at when Malcolm X spoke to the Oxford Union

April 1, 2015
5 min read

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Anti-racist Protest, by Stephen Tuck

Malcolm X at the Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era, by Saladin Ambar

When Malcolm X stepped through the doors of the Oxford Union on 3 December 1964 to debate the issue of ‘extremism in the defence of liberty’, he placed this institution, for a short time at least, at the heart of an insurrectionary anti-racist politics. ‘When one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings,’ he argued, ‘I say he’s a sinner.’

Read together, these two short books, published 50 years on from the speech and his assassination less than three months later, make significant contributions both to the study of racial politics in Britain and its relationship to global debates, and to the re‑evaluation of the political shifts Malcolm himself underwent in his later years.

Stephen Tuck situates the speech in the context of anti-racist politics in Oxford itself, alongside organisations such as JACARI (Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance), founded in 1956, and brings to light the previously under-examined early life of Eric Anthony Abrahams, the black Jamaican president of the Oxford Union who invited Malcolm to participate in the debate. JACARI exposed the local workings of racism, such as racial prejudice in the allocation of accommodation to students, and became involved in the global dynamics of anti-racist campaigning through its involvement in protests against South African diplomats speaking at Oxford.

This local context is almost entirely absent from Saladin Ambar’s account. Indeed, neither JACARI, nor many of its leading members, are to be found in the pages of his book. Instead, he makes a contribution that advances scholarship on Malcolm in a manner altogether different from Tuck. He reads the speech at the Oxford Union as a central moment in the political development of Malcolm himself, rooted in part in his then-recent acrimonious break from the Nation of Islam. Though it has long been suggested that Malcolm’s politics radicalised following his break with the Nation, Ambar goes further than most in tracing exactly how this was so, and tracks these shifts through Malcolm’s use of political concepts such as extremism, moderation, justice and virtue.

In 1964, Malcolm twice visited Africa before moving on to Paris, and then finally, at the end of November 1964, travelling to England. After speaking in Oxford, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies arranged for him to address student audiences in Manchester and Sheffield. Tuck deftly reconstructs these events, as well as the wider context of Malcolm’s visit to England, including the 1964 election campaign in Smethwick, Birmingham, where the Conservatives ran an infamously racist campaign.

A Sheffield student magazine had supported the Smethwick campaign, writing that ‘black immigrants were inferior and should “get home”’. Reports of Malcolm’s speech in the city are brief, but the student union there noted that he was the ‘only person in the history of this union who has received a standing ovation from 700 students’.

In February, Malcolm returned to England, addressing students at the LSE among others. By now, in Tuck’s words, he ‘thought of the three democratic capitalist regimes’ – Britain, France and the USA – ‘as an inextricably linked white power structure’. Such an analysis had emerged with utmost clarity in his speech at the Oxford Union, where he directly linked British imperialism, American race relations, and South African apartheid racial policies. His Oxford speech drew on a humanitarian crisis then emerging in the Congo, in the aftermath of the murder of Patrice Lumumba and his replacement by Moise Tshombe, who used white South African troops to secure his power base. Tuck attends to the way in which Malcolm’s interest in the Congo drew him to a direct critique of western media, but it is Ambar who most directly connects this element of the Oxford Union address to the wider themes of the speech.

Ambar makes fine use of interviews with participants in the debate, including Tariq Ali. Most notable in this regard is Ali’s recollection of fellow debate participant Hugh MacDiarmid’s apt description of Malcolm as an ‘authentic revolutionary’. Some have doubted this. Yet it is hard to disagree with MacDiarmid’s assessment after reading the final parts of Malcolm’s speech, fully transcribed as an appendix to Ambar’s book, or, even better, listening to the coverage from the BBC on YouTube:

‘You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change. And a better world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I for one will join in with anyone – I don’t care what colour you are – as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.’

Ambar concludes that ‘no other speech of Malcolm’s captures his political thought’s complexity, development, and potential global reach as well as Oxford’. On the evidence of these two excellent books, it is hard to disagree.

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