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.