By Antony Hamilton
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Malcolm X at Oxford Union

This article is over 7 years, 8 months old
Issue 391

When radical black American leader Malcolm X spoke at the Oxford Union in 1963 his speech was hailed as a “30 minute explosion that is perhaps the best encapsulation of [his] ultimate views on race, American politics and what can only be called universal human rights”.

In his book Malcolm X at Oxford Union, Racial Politics in a Global Era, Saladin Ambar explores one of the world’s most inspiring revolutionary leaders during the last year of his life, leading to one of his most anticipated debates hosted by the Oxford student union debating society.

Malcolm X was invited to debate the motion that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue”.

The debate was to become one of Malcolm X’s last high-profile appearances before his assassination in Harlem on 21 February 1965, and the conclusion of significant shifts in his political views since his radicalisation by the Nation of Islam movement.

Ambar opens with a brief chronology of the most significant events in the five years running up to his visit – events which radically changed Malcolm X’s outlook from one of militant Black Nationalism and separatism, to a more global view of resistance to repression.

He highlights Malcolm X’s political transformation in the “Message to the Grassroots” speech in 1963, his “Bullet or the Ballot” speech, and his subsequent Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca before his visit to Oxford.

This sets the tone of the book as an approach to understanding his political shift in the wider context, while also revealing the importance of understanding the language he uses to reveal his inner political struggles.

The book is structured to allow a descriptive view of each section of his speech, with careful attention to detail – including the way Malcolm X develops the term “devil” (often used to describe white people) from one which does not see “the inherent racism or evil of whites, but rather the result of a media culture that sustains a partial and racist narrative.”

Ambar concludes that we must be fearless in fighting for Malcolm X’s legacy, by any means necessary.


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