Malcolm X in the Old World

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Antiracist Protest, by Stephen Tuck, with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates, (University of California Press), 288 pages, released 20 November, 2014

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union is a rare creature: a scholarly work thick with information that nonetheless makes for a lively, thought-provoking read. I knew X had completed the hajj and that that pilgrimage had transformed his understanding of Islam and of race, but somehow I’d missed (or forgotten?) the fact that X spoke at Oxford.

The Oxford Union is both a building and an organization, one renowned for the debates it hosts. Figures of both national and international importance participate in these debates, and many British politicians launch their careers from the Oxford Union. To imagine X in this bastion of centuries-old privilege at first seems rather surreal, but, as Tuck demonstrates, X was a good fit for the Union and for Oxford when he visited in 1964.

Though still predominantly white, Oxford had begun admitting students from its colonies. The idea was to transform these “natives” so that they could return home to build their emerging nations in the image of Britain. Given the prejudice (and general ignorance) these students encountered at Oxford, the education that was supposed “British-ize” them actually radicalized them. Tuck cites one such student, the Jamaican Stuart Hall (later a founder of the New Left Review) who reflects on his Oxford years and their transformative power: “Most of my life had been spent thinking that the apogee of scholarly work and education was to get a scholarship and go to England to be finished off, and then come back, as it were, civilized…. Three months at Oxford persuaded me that… I’m not English and I never will be.”

Tuck helps readers explore the different faces of racism in the U.S. and Britain at that time. The U.S. civil rights movement worked for the equality of African American citizens whose families had been in the U.S. for generations. In Britain issues of race were also issues of immigration. Britains were shocked by the violence with which Jim Crow laws were upheld in the U.S., but had not really acknowledged the ways in which their colonial policies were a form of Jim Crown on an international scale.

Thus, when X arrived at Oxford, he was seizing a crucial moment, one that would resonate on both sides of the Atlantic. The theme of the debate was “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” —a statement that originated, rather ironically, with U.S. conservative Barry Goldwater.

X’s approach, as Tuck explains it, was to problematize the idea of extremism itself. He critiqued both the U.S. and the British press for their tendency to portray those engaged in civil rights struggles as extremists. X’s primary example to illustrate this distortion was the Congo, where the U.S. and Britain were upholding the government of authoritarian strongman Moise Tshombe. X observed that “Congolese have been massacred by white people for years and years…. The Congo situation is a nasty example of how a country, because it is in power, can take its press and make the world accept something that’s absolutely criminal.”

The Night Malcolm X Spoke at Oxford Union is composed of five substantial chapters each focusing on a single theme: the evolution of X’s political thinking up until the time of the debate; British colonialism and race; antiracist protests at Oxford in the decade before X’s talk; the debate itself; and the debate’s legacy in both Britain and the U.S. Due to the breadth of Tuck’s knowledge, each of these chapters has the structure of a finely woven web, with strands of information strikingly interwoven. This is a book, not just worth reading, but worth rereading—and given Tuck’s lucid prose, each of those readings will be deeply satisfying.