For Malcolm X Day, UC Press is featuring an excerpt from The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union by Stephen Tuck. Less than three months before he was assassinated, Malcolm X spoke at the Oxford Union—the most prestigious student debating organization in the United Kingdom. Tuck uses this event as a starting point to discuss larger issues of Black Power, the end of empire, British race relations, immigration, and student rights. Masterfully tracing the reverberations on both sides of the Atlantic, Tuck chronicles how the personal transformation of the dynamic American leader played out on the international stage.
Malcolm X knew a lot about prisons, having spent almost seven years behind bars in the United States. His happiness at feeling at home at last was understandable. His family home had been burned down by white supremacists when he was four; he had spent much of his adolescence in foster homes; and just before he flew to Cairo, former colleagues had filed suit to evict his family from their current home. But for Malcolm X, prison and home stood for something more than mere bricks and mortar. American racism was his prison, and a unified, free, black, ideally Muslim global community was the home he dreamed of.
It was these freedom dreams that compelled Malcolm X to travel abroad for much of 1964. Starting in Cairo, he journeyed to the Middle East, to Africa, and at the end of the year, to Europe. “Stepping out of prison” marked a pivotal moment in Malcolm X’s life and thought. It reflected his international vision and, as his name change to Malik El-Shabazz signified, his embrace of what he called Old World Islam. But in turn his travels would change his views on race as a concept and his commitment to human rights, such that by the end of the year Malcolm X was eager to speak at a celebrated university that had served as the intellectual hub of the British Empire. At Oxford, taking full advantage of such a prominent platform, he would give the clearest summary of his new position on race, religion, and human rights to date. Coming to Oxford was not the end of his journey. From Oxford, he would travel to several of England’s major cities, meeting more black students and immigrants. In the process, his views on racism as a global system, and how that system might be challenged, would further evolve.
In this sense, Malcolm X’s trip to Cairo, under a new name and following his departure from the Nation of Islam, was the beginning of the rest of his life— albeit a life that would last barely a year more. But his enjoyment of travel, eagerness to learn, keenness of observation, and willingness to have his views challenged were nothing new. Indeed, from his childhood Malcolm X’s life had been a story of travel and learning, as he sought to break out of prison and create a new home. It was a life that would unerringly lead him, through many twists and turns, from a poor black community in the midwestern United States to the Union debating chamber at the University of Oxford.
When he opened the Harlem bookshop in the
morning, the store owner discovered Malcolm,
reading. He had been reading the whole night.
— A. Peter Bailey, Malcolm X’s publicist,
September 21, 2013
Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, Malcolm X seemed destined from the very start for a life of travel and to be a black nationalist with a global vision. Not only was
Malcolm heir to an international lineage, learning about the glories of Africa from his parents, but he also suffered a childhood in which he was forced to move frequently— first to leave his home, and then his family.
Malcolm’s mother, Louise, a fair-skinned, well-educated Grenadian, and his father, Earl, a rough-hewn carpenter and occasional preacher from Georgia, had met in Montreal, Canada, while working for the black nationalist and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) at the end of World War I. By that time, the charismatic Jamaican was taking the United States by storm. Garvey’s call for race pride, economic self-sufficiency, and international black brotherhood was a product of the so-called New Negro zeitgeist of the World War I years. That zeitgeist was born of an era that saw black soldiers fight in a war overseas, black men fight against white mobs at home, and black men and women move into bustling black urban communities across the United States. It was also an era that witnessed a much-heralded cultural and artistic renaissance in Harlem and other black communities. The New Negroes, wrote the Jamaican-born, Harlem-based poet Claude McKay in 1919, at the end of his famous poem “If We Must Die,” would face the worst that white supremacy had to throw at them and live “like men.”