LFC by Grace Lee Boggs
Malcolm X at the Dec. 1964 Oxford Union Debate
In the current issue of RACE & CLASS, published quarterly in the UK since the early 1970s, the article by Lehigh University Professor Saladin Ambar reveals how Malcolm’s ideas on Race, Revolution and Liberalism were evolving in the last months of his life.
Malcolm was born May 19, 1925. He was assassinated February 21, 1965, a few months before his 40th birthday. Had he lived, he would be celebrating his 87th birthday in a few weeks.
Ambar’s introduction describes the scene.
“Malcolm X was invited by the president of the Oxford Union Society, the Jamaican-born Eric Abrahams. Having left the US for Africa on 9 July, Malcolm X did not return for nearly five months. After less than a week home, he was bound for London on 30 November 1964.
“In the spring of 1964, Malcolm X had become El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Having left the Nation of Islam (NOI) in early March, he had embraced Orthodox Islam, which, along with broader spiritual sustenance, provided him with a political reach far more formidable than the one he possessed as spokesman for the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
“By the time Malcolm touched down in London on 1 December, he had traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Liberia, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana and France. He undertook these most recent travels in the midst of an American presidential campaign and the British general election. In both instances, race was at the fore of party politics.
“Malcolm was invited to defend Senator Barry Goldwater’s statement at the Republican National Convention: ‘Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.’
“Malcolm had expressed respect, if not agreement, with Goldwater’s position: ‘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,’ said Malcolm to great applause.
Malcolm X’s visit to Oxford was clearly a reminder of the role that race was playing in British politics. England had been becoming ‘browner’ since the 1940s and 1950s.
While Malcolm’s politics were evolving and we cannot know whether, let alone where, his ideology might have taken root, it is hard to find a speech better than that delivered at Oxford in which to identify comprehensively where Malcolm stood on many philosophical questions. In this moment, one that briefly punctured his own self-aware confrontation with death, Malcolm X appears happy.
“Malcolm clearly loved debating. In his Autobiography, he speaks of his prison years, engaged in debates that sharpened his knowledge and speaking prowess: “I will tell you that, right there in prison, debating, speaking to a crowd, was as exhilarating to me as the discovery of knowledge through reading had been. Standing up there, the faces looking up at me, things in my head coming out of my mouth, while my brain searched for the next best thing to follow what I was saying, and if I could sway them to my side by handling it right, then I had won the debate – once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.”
As he rose to address the motion at hand, a circle of sorts had closed in the life story of Malcolm X.
“I don’t believe in any form of racialism.” “But at the same time, I don’t endorse a person being right just because his skin is white.” This line would allow him to draw the distinction between whites who could be enlisted in the cause of racial justice and those who could not. This was no small distinction for Malcolm, whose tenure in the NOI had been predicated upon the belief in the moral degeneration of whites.
“I think the only way one can really determine whether or not extremism in the defense of liberty is justified, is not to approach it as an American or a European or an African or an Asian, but as a human being.
“I don’t encourage any acts of murder, nor do I glorify in anybody’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses its press to magnify the fact that there are the lives of white hostages at stake – they don’t say ‘hostages,’ every paper says ‘white hostages’ – they give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death than they do the death of a human being despite the colour of his skin.”
After the applause dies down, Malcolm argues for the necessity of thinking in terms of ‘death being death’ . His unasked, but implied question is: why do you cry for those who are dying that are white, but not for those who are African? Malcolm seems to provide the answer; it is not the inherent racism or evil of whites, but rather the result of a media culture that sustains a partial and racist narrative: ‘The powers that be use the press to give the devil an angelic image and give the image of the devil to the one who’s really angelic.
Interestingly, Malcolm invokes the angelic/demonic binary several times at Oxford. Despite leaving behind the racially dependent theology of the NOI, Malcolm continues to employ the ‘devil’ in his rhetoric. But, at Oxford, as it had been for nearly all of 1964, it was a response to a condition or type of individual rather than an inherited characteristic of whites.
“And in my opinion the young generation of whites, Blacks, browns, whatever else there is – you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change … And I for one will join with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth. “