Fifty years ago today, a most unlikely figure was called to speak at the Oxford Union Debating Society: Mr. Malcolm X. The Union, with its historic chamber modeled on the House of Commons, was the political training ground for the scions of the British establishment. Malcolm X, by contrast, had become a global icon of black militancy, with a reputation as a dangerous Black Muslim. The visit seemed something of an awkward pairing. Malcolm X encountered a hotel receptionist who tried to make him write his name in full in the guest book (she had never heard of him), sat through a bow tie silver service dinner ahead of the debate, and had to listen to a conservative debating opponent accuse him of being a racist on a par with the Prime Minister of South Africa. A closer look at the event, though, reveals the pairing of Malcolm X and the Oxford Union to be a good fit — and reveals much about the issues of race and rights then, and now.
From the perspective of the Oxford Union, a controversial speaker was an entirely good thing. The BBC covered Malcolm X’s costs and broadcast the debate. In late 1964, though, Malcolm X also spoke to student concerns about race equality. For many years, the British media’s (sympathetic) coverage of anti-racist protests in the American South and South Africa gave the impression that racial discrimination was chiefly to be found elsewhere. A bitter election which turned on anti-immigration sentiment in late 1964 in Smethwick, in the English midlands, with its infamous slogan, “If you want a n***** for you neighbour, vote Labour,” exposed the virulence of the race issue in Britain, too. Students followed this news abroad and at home. Some visited “racial hotspots” in person. Others joined demonstrations in solidarity. Still, on the surface, such issues seemed a world away from Oxford’s dreaming spires.
But some students in Oxford were also grappling with the question of race in their own institution. The Union President, Eric Antony Abrahams, was a Jamaican Rhodes Scholar, who had vowed to his sister in his first week that he would “fill the Union chamber with blacks.” Abrahams was part of a growing cohort of students from newly independent nations who studied in Britain, many of whom called for changes in curriculum and representation. Three days before Malcolm X arrived, Oxford students released a report showing that more than half of University landladies in the city refused to accept students of color. The University had an official policy of non-discrimination, but the fact that many landladies turned down black applicants in practice had been a running sore for years. The report, and Malcolm X’s visit, brought the matter to public attention. Student activism ultimately forced a change in practice, part of a nationwide series of protests against the unofficial color-bar in many British lodgings. At a time when Ferguson is rightly at the forefront of the news, events in Oxford in 1964 remind us that atrocities elsewhere should serve as a prompt to address, rather than a reason to ignore, questions of rights and representation nearer to home.
For Malcolm X, coming to Oxford was an exciting challenge. He loved pitting his wits against the brightest and the best. As chance would have it, as Prisoner 22843 in the Norfolk Penal Colony in Massachusetts, he may well have debated against a visiting team from Oxford. More germane, though, was Malcolm’s desire in what turned out to be the final year of his life to place the black freedom struggle in America within the global context of human rights. He had spent the better part of 1964 in the Middle East and Africa. In each stop along his dizzying itinerary of states, he attempted to build support for international opposition to racial discrimination in America. Malcolm’s visits to Europe in late 1964 were no different. But it was Oxford that afforded him the opportunity to broadcast his views before his widest single audience yet. Citing the recent murders of civil rights activists in Mississippi, Malcolm X told his audience: “In that country, where I am from, still our lives are not worth two cents.”
At a time when cities across the United States have recently braced themselves against the threat of rebellion in the aftermath of the acquittal of Michael Brown’s killer, it is hard not to conclude that for many African Americans, Malcolm’s words at Oxford continue to haunt the nation. Indeed, by placing the civil rights movement in broad relief internationally, Malcolm sought to link the fate of African Americans with West Indians, Pakistanis, West Africans, Indians, and others, seeking their own justice in the capitals and banlieus of Europe. Emphasizing the independence of this new emergent world both within and outside of the confines of Europe, Malcolm hoped that the “time of revolution” his audience was living in would in part be defined by a broader sense of what it meant to be human. There could no longer be distinctions between “black” and “white” deaths — despite his condemnation of the media for continuing to indulge such distinctions.