Reflections on Malcolm X 50 Years After His Death

This Saturday, February 21 marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. His untimely death came shortly after his public split with the Nation of Islam, when he was developing an international human rights, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist message that was meant to appeal to the oppressed around the world. The debate at the Oxford Union took place only three months before his death, and was one of the last opportunities for him to share this message, “…I, for one, will join in with anyone—don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

Stephen Tuck, author of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, will be speaking at The Malcolm X 50th Anniversary Memorial at the Shabazz Center in Harlem this Saturday, February 21. If you can’t attend in person, visit www.ebony.com/MalcolmX50thMemorial-221 at 2pm on Saturday to view a live stream of the event.
 

Excerpt from the Prologue of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union:

On the evening of December 3, 1964, a most unlikely figure was invited to speak at the University of Oxford Union’s end-of-term “Queen and Country” debate: Mr. Malcolm X. The Oxford Union was the most prestigious student debating organization in the world, regularly welcoming heads of state and stars of screen. It was also, by tradition, the student arm of the British establishment—the training ground for the politically ambitious offspring of Britain’s “better classes.” Malcolm X, by contrast, had a reputation for revolution and danger. As the Sun, a widely read British tabloid, explained to readers in a large-font caption under a photograph of the American visitor: “He wants a separate Negro state in which coloured people could live undisturbed. And many Americans believe he would use violence to get it.” Certainly the FBI did. Its file on Malcolm X, opened in 1953, expanded by the week as he toured Africa during the second half of 1964, giving a series of uncompromising speeches and meeting with heads of state to seek their support in calling for the United Nations to intervene in U.S. race relations.

The peculiarity of his presence in Oxford was not lost on Malcolm X. “I remember clearly that the minute I stepped off the train, I felt I’d suddenly backpedaled into Mayflower-time,” he told a friend later. Fresh from visiting newly independent nations in Africa, Malcolm X sensed that in Oxford “age was just seeping out of the pores of every stone. 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.” Initially, he wondered whether he had made a mistake accepting the invitation.

At times, Malcolm X’s visit proved to be comically awkward. He was met at the rail station by, among others, the (white) Union secretary, Henry Brownrigg, who fell somewhat silent in the presence of an African American revolutionary. Brownrigg accompanied Malcolm X, self-consciously, to Oxford’s preeminent hotel, the Randolph, a Victorian Gothic building with a quaint, old-fashioned ambience. Malcolm X, however, seemed to interpret the choice of a hotel somewhat in need of internal refurbishment as a racist insult, a view reinforced by the receptionist’s insistence that he sign his surname in full, rather than just with an “X,” in the hotel guest book. The dress code at the silver-service dinner, held in the Union’s wooden paneled dining room before the debate, did not suit him either. By tradition, speakers wore black bowties, which was also the uniform of the Nation of Islam, the religious movement that he had served for more than a decade. But having left the Nation acrimoniously earlier in the year (and now living under a death threat as a result), Malcolm X wore a straight tie instead, the only speaker or committee member to do so. Wearing a straight tie was a mark of inferior rank at the dinner: the only other person who wore a straight tie was the steward, who served the food and wine.

Ironically, the motion Malcolm X was called on to support in the debate was embodied in a quotation from Senator Barry Goldwater, of all people, the outspoken conservative Republican nominee in the previous month’s presidential election, who had opposed the recent passage of the American Civil Rights Act. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that summer, Goldwater had defended the John Birch Society, saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in the pursuit of vice is no virtue.” Even before he rose to speak in support of that argument, Malcolm X’s debating opponents mocked the notion of a black radical defending “the Goldwater standard.” Malcolm X countered that he preferred Goldwater to the winner of that presidential election, Lyndon Johnson, since at least Goldwater was open about his racism.

Malcolm X’s friend the black arts poet and filmmaker Lebert Bethune, who was in London in late 1964, could not resist the chance “to see the sacrosanct image of Oxford shattered by the fist of revolutionary logic. So I took a train to Oxford just to be there for the blow.”That blow was aimed most directly at Humphrey Berkeley, a conservative MP and Malcolm X’s main debating opponent. Berkeley charged Malcolm X with being every bit as racist as apologists for South African apartheid, and joked about his “pseudonym” surname, X.

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the debate, with speakers facing each other at a distance of barely two meters in a chamber modeled on the House of Commons, that caused Malcolm X to come as close as he could remember to losing his temper. He gathered his thoughts, however, regained his composure, then returned Berkeley’s insult. “The speaker that preceded me is one of the best excuses that I know to prove our point,” he said, andthen threw Berkeley’s argument back at him: “He is right. X is not my real name.” His real name, in fact, had been taken by Berkeley’s forefathers, who raped and pillaged their way through Africa. “I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name.” The students laughed when Malcolm X suggested that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I think it was, who said, ‘to be or not to be,’” was “in doubt about something.” They listened attentively to his assault on the American media, loudly applauded his condemnation of racism, and some booed when he justified the recent murder of white missionaries by freedom fighters in the Congo as an act of war. Malcolm X lost the debate, but he won plenty of admirers. Bethune judged it “one of the most stirring speeches I have ever heard delivered by Malcolm X.”

On the face of it, the fact that Malcolm X chose to spend an evening at a fusty old English university seems something of a puzzle.But given the lengths to which Malcolm went in order to make the trip, it was clearly important to him: he accepted the invitation even though he was too busy in late 1964 even to respond to similar invitations from leading American universities; he agreed to speak for no fee even though his finances were in a parlous state; and he accommodated Oxford’s fixed schedule even though the debate could hardly have come at a more inconvenient time. Having been abroad during the spring and then again through the second half of 1964, he was eager to be home. “I miss you and the children very much,” he wrote to his wife, Betty, in August from Africa, “but it looks like another month at least may pass before I see you.” In fact, it would be another three. He returned home to New York on November 24. By that time, Betty was heavily pregnant,his mother was seriously ill, and the Nation of Islam was seeking to evict his family from their home. Meanwhile, his new organizations, Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, were in a state of organizational shambles owing to his absence. Yet he still felt, as he put it to one of his closest colleagues, Charles 37X Kenyatta, that “the long-run gains [of the trip to England] outweigh the risks.” Within a week of his homecoming from Africa, he was back on a plane across the Atlantic to London.

Why coming to Oxford was so important to Malcolm X, why Oxford students chose to invite him, and what effect the visit had on the man and the institution were the starting questions for this book. Far from being a chance or unlikely combination, it turns out there was an unerring logic about the coming together of an outspoken black revolutionary and this historic center of Western learning. By late 1964, black students at Oxford needed Malcolm X to come, and he felt it was urgent to go. Why that was so reveals much about both Malcolm X’s life and thought and the university’s engagement with race and rights. And more broadly, it has much to tell about Britain at the end of its empire, America during the civil rights era, and the global currents of the black freedom struggle.

From his childhood, Malcolm X had been on the move, eager to learn and in search of a better life—first for himself, then for others. In 1964, his journey took him abroad, to the Middle East, then Africa, and finally Europe. His international travels were a response to changes in his outlook, but they also caused his outlook to change in turn. Thus the debate at Oxford marked the latest stage in Malcolm’s transformation from a small-time hustler to the world’s most famous black nationalist, from a dogmatic black supremacist to a proponent of human rights, and from an American-based controversialist to a seasoned traveler with a global vision (who remained an irascible critic of America). Ending up at Oxford happened somewhat by chance. But only somewhat. The details of his life—his enjoyment of travel, his fascination with (or rather contempt for) the British Empire, his love of debate, his ease among white students, his desire to connect with the coming generation of postcolonial leaders, his frustration at being dismissed by the media as too extreme, his readiness for a confrontation, and his penchant for associating with famous people and places, even his love of Shakespeare—had prepared him for a debate on extremism and moderation at the Oxford Union.

As for the students of Oxford, they had grappled with the issue of race ever since the Victorian era, first in support of the empire, then to challenge it. In 1964, the issue had come to a head. Malcolm X arrived to speak at the very moment when some two thousand students were demanding an end to the exclusion of black students from university housing, when Britain was beset by the racial politics of immigration, and when global freedom struggles were headline news in Britain. That the Oxford Union issued an invitation to Malcolm X was by no means inevitable. But it made perfect sense. The Union was a high-profile forum for debate with a tradition of outspoken colonial student leaders, heated engagement with gender, race, and colonial issues, and a rising influence of left-leaning students. And in late 1964, a radical Jamaican student—whose hero was Malcolm X—had been elected as president of the Union.

Malcolm X’s visit to the Union, in short, was a story with much longer roots, and more far-reaching implications, than the content of the speech alone might suggest. It was a story that interwove the global, national, local, and university politics of race. It was a story that involved a wide cast of characters from four continents. And it was a story that touched on many of the major themes of the era, of empire and nationalism, Black Powerand citizenship, immigration and segregation, student rights and human rights, Commonwealth and the Cold War, Islam and Christianity, sexism and class conflict, media and the cult of celebrity, the so-called Black Atlantic and the British-American special relationship, and even cricket. It was precisely because of the broader context of Malcolm X’s visit that the content of the speech is so important. It stands as the clearest and most eloquent articulation of his critique of racism and his vision for a remedy after a year of travel and shortly before the end of his life.

The night of the speech was not the end of Malcolm X’s connection with Britain. Oxford was the first stop for Malcolm X in a short tour of four English cities, followed by a return trip in February 1965, a week before he died. His visit was but one of many by high-profile U.S. civil rights activists to Britain during this period. Just three days after the Oxford debate, for example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to an overflowing congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Civil rights travelers, including Malcolm X, sought to use these visits, and the international dimensions of the struggle for equality, for their own purposes. But none of those involved, not even Malcolm X, had complete control over how the story turned out or how the visit changed their outlook or circumstances. Thus the full story of the Union debate also reveals the transformative, and often unexpected, impact of transatlantic connections on issues of race and equality—in this case, an impact not just on the course of British activism, but even on such a renowned global figure as Malcolm X.

 

Stephen Tuck is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. He is the author of several books including We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama and coauthor of Historians across Borders: Writing American History in a Global Age (UC Press).


Start 2015 with 1995

1995Remember life before the web?

It’s now hard to imagine (or recollect, depending on your age) that a generation ago, in 1995, Sergey and Larry were just meeting at Stanford. (“Their mutual first reaction was that the other was pretty obnoxious.”)

Craigslist, Match.com, and Salon.com all began in 1995. Yahoo was incorporated in 1995. eBay was launched (as AuctionWeb) in 1995. Netscape IPO-ed spectacularly, and Jeff Bezos launched Amazon. In fact, during the course of 1995 the Internet and the World Wide Web—a word of the year according to the American Dialect Society—went from “near-invisibility to near-ubiquity” in the words of legendary Internet pioneer Vinton G. Cerf.

Other events that occurred in 1995?

The Oklahoma bombing, the O. J. Simpson trial, the Dayton Peace Accords, and the start of the Clinton–Lewinsky relationship—all of which had lasting effects and consequences for American culture. It is “a year that matters still,” according to W. Joseph Campbell, and 1995: The Year the Future Began shows why.

The author of five other nonfiction books (including Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism), Campbell is persuasive as to why 1995 represents a “clear starting point for contemporary life,” and elaborates his argument via a chapter on each event:

They were profound in their respective ways, and, taken together, they define a watershed year at the cusp of the millennium. Nineteen ninety-five in many ways effectively marked the close of one century, and the start of another.

At his blog devoted to the book and the year 1995, Campbell answers the question “why write a book about 1995?”

Campbell’s prose reflects his 20-year background in journalism; though meticulously researched, the book reads like a thriller. Given that Campbell is social-media savvy as well as a lively writer—as befits both his subject matter and his current ‘beat’ as a Professor in the School of Communication at American University—let’s let him do the talking: you can listen to his recent Newseum interview here.

Newseum

Quick as he is to demur when queried about, say, Marc Andreesen’s re-tweeting him—“we’re not acquaintances or anything … but it makes a difference when he re-tweets, for sure”—Campbell comes prepared for most social media situations (as befits his coverage of the massively “up-and-to-the-right” rise of American Internet adoption).

The best way to experience 1995 is just to start reading. Remember the roots of the Internet as you relive 1995. Once you’re hooked, explore Campbell’s other books, blogs, and feeds.

You’ll be in august company: not long ago, Intel CEO Brian M. Krzanich—at the Consumer Electronics Show keynote in Las Vegas, no less—declared that “1995 was a watershed moment in consumer technology.” You can’t get much better confirmation than that!

(Yes, this hyper hyper-linking is an homage to what’s changed in just two decades … or, in ‘Internet time,’ approximately 1,000 years. And if you believe you’re as prescient as Vinton Cerf, please share your predictions for five events that 2035 will look back upon as watershed exemplars of the ‘mid-teens’ of the twenty-first century.)

Getting it Wrong

Newsrooms have been meeting tech for a long, long time and typically have not dealt very well with it. One of the chapters in Getting It Wrong discusses the famous (or infamous) “War of the Worlds” radio dramatization of 1938, and how newspapers really took the occasion to beat up on radio as an immature and irresponsible medium. By doing so they helped perpetuate what was an exaggeration of the notion of nationwide panic and mass hysteria caused by that program. It did not happen. There may have been some frightened people that night, but nowhere near on a national scale, nowhere near mass panic or broad-based hysteria.

It’s a recurring theme in American journalism that established media treat upstart new media with suspicion and a fair amount of skepticism, if not overt hostility, and they often do so to their detriment. We see that same trend in 1995 with the rise of the Internet into mainstream consciousness. One of the top editors at the time said, “Well, thankfully, people getting their news from the Internet is a very small audience, and likely will remain as such for a long time.”

Campbell’s provocative Getting It Wrong won in 2010 the Society of Professional Journalists’ national award for “Research about Journalism.” He maintains the MediaMythAlert blog.

 


Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

To celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Monday, January 19, Tenisha Hart Armstrong, Volume VII editor of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., curated a special selection of relevant photographs and a video that draw upon the rich resources of The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.

  • In his office at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King meets with Gurdon Brewster, an intern at the church during the summer of 1961. Courtesy of Gurdon Brewster.

 

The publication in October 2014 of Volume VII: To Save the Soul of America, January 1961–August 1962, edited by Clayborne Carson and Tenisha Hart Armstrong of Stanford, marked the half-way point of this long-term research and publication venture of 14 volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. which is conducted in association with the King Estate, Stanford University, and the University of California Press.

Explore the other volumes in the series:

The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. is part of UC Press’s strong list in African American history. Other titles that may be of interest include Black against Empire (which won the 2014 American Book Association award), The Black Revolution on Campus (winner of the Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History from the American Historical Association), The Next American Revolution (advice for the 21st century from civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs, who turns 100 this year), and Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O’Dell.

Please explore our African American History list and our Race and Class list.


Join UC Press at AHA

Bring in the new year with University of California Press at the 2015 American Historical Association Annual Meeting. The meeting convenes January 2-5 in New York City.

Please visit us at booth 401 in the New York Hilton Grand Ballroom to purchase our latest American Studies publications and for the following offers:

  • 30% conference discount and free worldwide shipping
  • Submit exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes
  • Win $100 worth of books! Join our eNews subscription

Our history list is comprised of a broad selection of titles ideal for research and course usage.  While at our booth, explore topics such as United States history, Latin American history, and world history. We’ll also offer subscription rates for our history journals.

Please see our conference program ad for our latest offerings.  Acquisitions and marketing staff will be available for your publishing questions.

Follow hashtag #AHA2015 and @ahahistorians for current meeting news.

 

 

 



Flags and Faces: David Lubin on the Art of the First World War

David Lubin’s forthcoming book, Flags and Faces: The Visual Culture of America’s First World War, shows how American artists, photographers, and graphic designers helped shape public perceptions about World War I. In commemoration of Veterans Day, David Lubin shares the stories behind ten images in the book:

  • Fig. 34. Mutilated French soldier with prosthesis from the Portrait Masks studio, 1918. Library of Congress. Public Domain.

    In 1917, Anna Coleman Ladd, a Boston sculptor with humanitarian concerns, persuaded the American Red Cross to open a “studio for portrait masks” in Paris. There she and a team of assistants crafted galvanized-copper face masks for soldiers who had been permanently disfigured in trench warfare to enable them to return to the workplace and their families. Here is one such mask. When the war ended, the studio closed and the masked men were left to their own devices, most likely to live the rest of their lives in seclusion. [To hear more from David Lubin on Anna Coleman Ladd, visit http://www.npr.org/2014/09/25/351441401/one-sculptors-answer-to-wwi-wounds-plaster-copper-and-paint]

Black against Empire Authors Win American Book Award

On Sunday, October 26 at the SF Jazz Center, Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin received the 2014 American Book Award for Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. The book is the first comprehensive overview and analysis of the history and politics of the Black Panther Party. The authors analyze key political questions, such as why so many young black people across the country risked their lives for the revolution, why the Party grew most rapidly during the height of repression, and why allies abandoned the Party at its peak of influence.

Bloom American Book Award -- Web
Joshua Bloom accepts the American Book Award

Bloom and Martin join the illustrious ranks of Toni Morrison, Edward Said, Isabel Allende, bell hooks, Don DeLillo, Robin D.G. Kelley, Joy Harjo, and Gary Snyder as recipients of the award, which was created by the Before Columbus Foundation to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community.

Bloom Acceptance Speech -- Web
Joshua Bloom during his acceptance speech

Watch Joshua Bloom’s acceptance speech at Sunday’s ceremony, below. In a discussion ranging from the sit-ins of the Jim Crow era to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Bloom makes a passionate case for why the history of the Black Panther Party matters today.


Free Speech at 50: Mario Savio on What Makes Us Human

“To me, freedom of speech is something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is. . . . That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely. It is almost impossible for me to describe. It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

—Mario Savio

It’s been 50 years since Mario Savio awakened the country to the possibilities of resistance, civil disobedience, and personal expression on the UC Berkeley campus. The Free Speech Movement, led by Savio, would grow into one of the most important social movements of the post-war period in the United States.

We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the movement with the publication of The Essential Mario Savio, a compendium of influential speeches and previously unknown writings, offering insight into and perspective on the disruptive yet nonviolent civil disobedience tactics used by Savio.

Below, watch the moment it all caught fire: Savio’s famous “Machine Speech,” delivered on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964.

 

Watch a slideshow of some of the pivotal actions and protests in the movement’s history:

  • Mario Savio speaking from the top of the police car. Oct. 1, 1964. Credit: Steve Marcus, Courtesy of UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library

 

Join the conversation and help us celebrate on Facebook and Twitter using #FSM50, #MarioSavio, and #FreeSpeech.

And save 30% when you order The Essential Mario Savio—enter discount code 15W4312 at checkout!

 

 


Bill Gates and David Christian Team Up to Bring Big History to the Masses

In a recent profile on Bill Gates, the New York Times explored the emerging subject of Big History, and Gates’ project with UC Press author David Christian to introduce Big History into high school curricula across the country. Christian, who pioneered the field, surveys the universe from the beginning of time to the present day in his book Maps of Time, integrating cosmology, geology, archeology, and population and environmental studies.

According to the Times, Bill Gates was an immediate fan of the approach, and “found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. ‘I just loved it,’ he said. ‘It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!'” Gates and Christian started slow, establishing Big History courses in just a few high schools at a time and letting the project grow organically. Now, writes the Times, “it will be offered free to more than 15,000 students in some 1,200 schools” this fall.

Read more about Gates’ ambitious plan to advance the field, and stay tuned for Teaching Big History, forthcoming in November 2014 from UC Press, a powerful and comprehensive guide for teaching Big History, as well for sharing ideas about the subject and planning a curriculum around it.


UC Press Authors Speak at Gandhi as Lawyer Panel

Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson and author of Gandhi, and Charles DiSalvo, author of M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law, along with the Hon. Sanjay Tailor (State of Illinois, Circuit Court of Cook County), recently spoke at a panel entitled “Gandhi as Lawyer” at the South Asian Bar Association (SABA)’s  annual conference. The panel explored this lesser known aspect of Gandhi’s life, and used Gandhi’s sedition trial as a case study for the modern day administration of justice. View a slideshow of photos from the panel below: