Malcolm X’s visit to Britain

February 27, 2014 — Review

Written by Michael Higgs

A new historical book looks at Malcolm X’s 1964 visit to Britain.

Malcolm X was assassinated forty-nine years ago last week. As people reflect on his life and legacy, a new book looks at the visit he made to Britain toward the end of his life.

In November 1964, Malcolm X ended a tour of Africa, where he had passed through a dozen different states. Instead of returning directly to the United States, he travelled first to Paris and then the UK. There he took part in a debate at the Oxford Union Society in one of his final public appearances before his murder the following February. That debate is the subject of Saladin Ambar’s new book, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: racial politics in a global era.

Ambar’s short book puts Malcolm X’s speech, in favour of the motion ‘Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue’ in a new context both for his political thought and the environment in which he was speaking.

The author argues that, at a time where he was travelling widely to support the struggles of black and oppressed peoples around the world, Malcolm X’s contribution reflected the fact that his thinking was moving away from black nationalism. By breaking down the detail of the speech through its various themes – extremism, liberty, justice etc  – the book discusses political developments taking place in Britain and how Malcolm X’s visit was of greater significance than a simple university debate, or than it is generally remembered now.  Interviews with Tariq Ali (Malcolm X’s debating partner) and others help to give a sense of the times.

While Malcolm X’s revolutionary speech seemed to be well received by the audience, who granted him extended applause, when it came to the final vote, his side still lost. This was the Oxford Union after all.

The book reprints the speech in full in an appendix, but readers may wish to start there. At the time, the BBC also broadcast film of roughly half of the speech, which can be found online.

Malcolm X returned to Britain in February 1965, less than a fortnight before he was killed. His last visit was to Smethwick, where Peter Griffiths had won his place as a Conservative MP with the slogan ‘if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. Malcolm X visited Marshall Street, telling reporters ‘I have come here because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being badly treated.’ At the time, Griffiths was leading a campaign by the local council to prevent the sale of homes on Marshall Street to any non-white families. Griffiths had chosen that road quite purposely, the scheme even being called the ‘Marshall Plan’, in case the allusion that Commonwealth migration should be seen as a fascist invasion was too subtle. Malcom X hit back: ‘I would not wait for the fascist element in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.’ Condemned by the mainstream parties of course, but one of his last acts was to throw into sharp relief the state of British racism.

Malcolm X at Oxford Union: racial politics in a global era is published by Oxford University Press.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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