Why Did Malcolm X Go to Oxford?

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Malcolm X speaks during a debate at the Oxford Union at Oxford University in 1964.
YouTube Screenshot

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 95: What did Malcolm X do at Oxford University?

“It wasn’t Columbus that discovered [the earth] was round,” Malcolm X provocatively once said. That fact, he claimed, had been worked out long before by the brilliant black scholars of Timbuktu, Mali—that revered center of learning at the gateway of the Sahara Desert—and it was only when white Europeans were “exposed to the science and learning that existed in the universities on the African continent,” Malcolm said, that they learned the real shape of our planet.  


Whether Malcolm’s claim is true or not can be ascertained only when the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in Timbuktu have been digitized and analyzed. But Malcolm’s point was to stake a claim for black Africa as a source of civilization long before Columbus’ fellow conquistadors “discovered” it.

It has been almost 50 years since Malcolm X left the stage, and he still doesn’t have—and probably never will—a national holiday named for him like Christopher Columbus (or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for that matter), however much support there may be for it in some quarters. So I’ve always liked the irony of remembering Malcolm X on Columbus Day, so fierce was Malcolm’s attack on most things that descended from that singular journey in world history, not least slavery.  


I’m especially mindful of Malcolm X this year, given the upcoming 50th anniversary of his legendary trek across the Atlantic to debate scholars at one of the world’s most elite universities. It was there that he took on the assumptions of Western scholars while reminding them of the atrocities committed by their ancestors who set about “discovering” the New World and Africa in 1492. Malcolm didn’t attend college, but he was, without a doubt, a genius, self-taught in the prison system of Massachusetts in the late 1940s and early ’50s (when he was still Malcolm Little). And he was fearless about bringing his anti-colonial message to college campuses courageous enough to invite him.  

But the university to which Malcolm X traveled in December 1964 was different from any other he had ever visited, including Harvard, where he had spoken that March. This iconic university was symbolic of the British Empire itself, with a student body increasingly drawn from every place across the globe upon which the sun, in its daily course, set. I’m talking, of course, about the University of Oxford, home of the Oxford Union, that elite debating society and Oxbridge staple that gave Malcolm X an international stage as powerful as Columbus’ muskets. The weapons Malcolm used to conquer his foes, however, were his words. 


Now in its 190th year, the Oxford Union has hosted historical figures as famous as William Ewart Gladstone and the Dalai Lama, with Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Desmond Tutu, Salman Rushdie and Barry White in between. Yet I think it is fair to say that nothing before or since quite matches the night of Dec. 3, 1964, when Malcolm X came to Oxford as an invited guest to debate the topic of “extremism in the defense of liberty.”  

For those not around at the time, understand this: At that crowded hour, the world was swirling with the struggle for civil rights in the United States, a nascent war in Vietnam and the uncharted path of independence in postcolonial Africa. Malcolm X didn’t fail to “break it down” for those young members of the British elite hanging on his every word. It’s fair to say that Oxford had never seen anything like him! Indeed, his performance was as iconic as any in the history of the Oxonian pantheon of great debates.  


Oxford professor Stephen Tuck’s new book, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, due out in November from the University of California Press, lets us revisit that stage. In doing so, we see, hear and grasp the words behind the words that Malcolm X exchanged on that night of nights. I was pleased to write the foreword for Tuck’s book—and to preview it here.

‘Extremism in the Defense of Liberty Is No Vice’

In the black-and-white days before instant news, social media, 24-7 cable and worldwide Internet coverage, speakers on their feet had time to riff, improvise and develop positions in the thrust and parry of spontaneous, at times raucous, discourse. Malcolm X was a genius in this medium, and the Oxford Union represented the pinnacle of this tradition of debate, dating to its founding in 1829, when slavery was still legal in the British Empire and expanding ever more deeply in Malcolm's native United States.


In an ironic twist, Malcolm X was invited to Oxford to defend the position that former U.S. presidential nominee Barry Goldwater had staked out in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention—to many, the dawn of the conservative movement in America: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But Malcolm surely knew that Sen. Goldwater had not said anything new in those quickly famous lines, and so he didn’t waste any time referring to him during his debate.

Malcolm X destroyed his opponent, Humphrey Berkeley, a Conservative member of British Parliament, who, while ostensibly taking the other side of the “extremism” argument, went so far as to accuse Malcolm of being a racist in the same league as the pro-apartheid forces in South Africa; he even poked fun at his name.


Exposing the hypocrisy of Humphrey’s “moderate” position, Malcolm rebutted, “I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he’s wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil.” Malcolm also cleverly explained, “[Humphrey’s] right, X is not my real name [laughter], but if you study history you’ll find why no black man in the western hemisphere knows his real name. Some of his ancestors kidnapped our ancestors from Africa, and took us into the western hemisphere and sold us there. And our names were stripped from us and so today we don’t know who we really are. I am one of those who admit it and so I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name.”  

The truth is, Malcolm’s signature sentiment, “by any means necessary,” harked back to the African-American abolitionist movement’s earliest phase in the founding days of the Oxford Union, none more famous than David Walker’s 1829 Appeal … to the Coloured People of the World United States, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of Americain which he urged slaves to rise up against their masters and resist efforts to uproot African Americans from their American homeland.  


Malcolm X followed in that tradition (interestingly, both Walker and Malcolm had lived in Boston and both would die untimely deaths), but for Malcolm, the stakes were not about resisting emigration but about forging an international alliance between those victims of Jim Crow at home and of colonialism abroad, now demanding equal rights and independence. As Malcolm spoke at Oxford, the civil rights movement in America was about to make a most dramatic turn toward voting rights in Selma, Ala.(soon to be the focus of a major motion picture produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey), and Malcolm was working out what lay beyond the bridge.  

Crossing the Pond: An African-American Tradition 

Looking at the video of Malcolm’s performance, we see mainly white faces in the audience, a tuxedo here and there against wood-paneled chambers. But in his book, Tuck shows us that Oxford in 1964 was anything but insulated from the gales of change. As out of place as he might have appeared to some within the frame, Malcolm X stood tall as an honored, respected guest. He had been invited by none other than the Oxford Union’s second West Indian student president, Eric Anthony Abrahams, a 24-year-old Rhodes scholar who went on to become the BBC's first black television reporter before assuming various leadership roles in the Jamaican government.


It was a unique moment, to be sure. Malcolm X’s debate performance, however, flowed out of a much longer Anglo-American narrative of slavery to freedom, reaching back to 18th-century African-British abolitionist author and lecturer Olaudah Equiano and 19th-century African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  

Douglass in particular, for 20 eventful months between 1845 and 1847, successfully leveraged the distance between England and the New World to indict American slavery. Inside Queen Victoria’s realm, Douglass delivered more than 300 anti-slavery speeches across England, Ireland and Scotland. Like Malcolm X, Douglass had cast off his slave master’s name, both out of protest and in an attempt to mask his identity as a fugitive slave.  


A century after emancipation, Malcolm X was a different kind of fugitive. Not only had he broken with the Nation of Islam and his leader and former mentor, Elijah Muhammad, but he also was viewed by many Americans (even those inside the civil rights movement) as a violent extremist, in part based on his appearance in the 1959 CBS documentary The Hate That Hate Produced.

After an intensive pilgrimage to Mecca in the spring of 1964, in which he embraced orthodox Islam and began to turn more fully to an international human rights perspective, Malcolm X seized on the Oxford Union invitation as a chance to correct the record. He was especially eager to turn the very brand of extremism that had been fixed on him against his accusers. The goal was to expose the blatant hypocrisy that had made racism and the racial violence afflicted on black people and others of color seem moderate, prudent and measured compared with these people’s resistance to their own oppression.  


Malcolm X Unplugged

Although Malcolm X’s debate at the Oxford Union is less well-known than, say, the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, it was broadcast on the BBC. Thus is preserved forever a record of where Malcolm was headed as the leader of Islam in America (as he had described himself to President Nasser of Egypt).  


The change exploding outside the debate hall that night was dramatic: Two days earlier, the Johnson administration had met to discuss the bombing campaign in Vietnam, and early that very morning, at the University of California, Berkeley, 800 protesters taking part in the student Free Speech Movement were arrested for a sit-in at an administration building. A week later the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would receive the Nobel Peace Prize and Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara would address the United Nations General Assembly, while the U.S. Supreme Court weighed the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on public accommodations. To the world of that moment, Malcolm X was delivering a message of the necessity of “extremism” in the name of international human rights.  

Unlike King (whom Malcolm X fiercely criticized as being too “soft”), Malcolm was less a prophet and more a prosecutor, exposing crimes that few in the media admitted to. That night in Oxford, Malcolm laid claim to “intelligently directed extremism,” which he manifested with his jabbing finger, his confident laughter, his trim black suit, his narrow tie and starched white shirt, and those trademark professorial glasses. In a sense, Malcolm was the political face of an aesthetic triumvirate that included Muhammad Ali and Miles Davis, each in their own ways expounding and improvising upon resistance to the “castration of the black man.”


Here are some of my favorite lines that Malcolm X tossed off that night:

Anytime anyone is enslaved or in any way deprived of his liberty, that person, as a human being, as far as I’m concerned he is justified to resort to whatever methods necessary to bring about his liberty again.

[W]hen a black man strikes back he’s an extremist, he’s supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemy no matter what kind of attack, verbal or otherwise, he’s supposed to take it. But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.

Out of the thirty-six committees that govern the foreign and domestic direction of that government, twenty-three are in the hands of southern racialists.

The racialist never understands a peaceful language. The racialist never understands the nonviolent language. The racialist has spoken his type of language to us for over four hundred years. We have been the victim of his brutality, we are the ones who face his dogs—who tear the flesh from our limbs—only because we want to enforce the Supreme Court decision. We are the ones who have our skulls crushed, not by the Ku Klux Klan, but by policemen, all because we want to enforce what they call the Supreme Court decision. We are the ones upon whom water hoses are turned on, practically so hard that it rips the clothes from our back— not men, but the clothes from the backs of women and children. You’ve seen it yourself. All because we want to enforce what they call the law. Well, any time you live in a society supposedly and it doesn’t enforce its own laws, because the color of a man’s skin happens to be wrong, then I say those people are justified to resort to any means necessary to bring about justice where the government can’t give them justice.

I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote, that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think it was, who said “to be or not to be.” He was in doubt about something. Whether it was nobler, in the mind of man, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—oderation—or to take up arms against the sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them. And I go for that; if you take up arms you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who is in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.


Winners and Losers

Technically, Malcolm X lost the debate according to the audience vote, though the students gave him “enthusiastic applause,” Tuck says. But that was really beside the point. Malcolm had taught an entire college course in one night, that night. All these years later, listening to him turn Shakespeare and Patrick Henry to his advantage is all the more poignant because we know that, so very shortly after his hour of apotheosis, he would exit the world stage—gunned down in New York City by Nation of Islam assassins on Feb. 21, 1965. Ironically and most tragically, the Oxford Union debate was one of the last gospels Malcolm X would ever preach.


Of course, the only thing better than reading and listening to this debate would have been watching it unfold live and then interviewing Malcolm X myself. But in his splendid book, Stephen Tuck provides more than Malcolm’s words. He delivers up the hidden transcript, so to speak, of a debate when debating mattered, the meaning and weight behind each rat-a-tat-tat of Malcolm’s verbal machine gun; the man who had hustled his way through early manhood and had learned to debate in prison; the prisoner and Muslim convert who read incessantly and developed his rhetorical skills, all with the cold walls of confinement against his back.

After Malcolm was assassinated, King issued this statement: “We must face the tragic fact that Malcolm X was murdered by a morally inclement climate. It reveals that our society is still sick enough to express dissent through murder. We have not learned to disagree without being violently disagreeable.”


However one might score Malcolm X’s debate performance that December evening nearly 50 years ago, or his legacy of struggle, I hope we can all agree that at the Oxford Union, Malcolm admirably demonstrated how one meets the highest standard of verbal exchange, using his uncommonly resonant voice to defend the black pursuit of liberty and equality in the extreme.

So if, on this Columbus Day, you are weary of recalling the explorer who “discovered” that the earth was round in 1492, please give thought to preordering Stephen Tuck’s new book. With it in your hands, you’ll be able to conjure the 20th century’s most brilliant black debater, who, in his own unique way, carried on the centuries-old tradition of black study and learning—one that dates back a half-millennium to those enlightened scholars at the great university in Timbuktu, the “Oxford” of the African continent.  


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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