Inspired: Malcolm X and the UK

In 1964, Black Power advocate and human rights activist Malcolm X visited the UK for the first time and spoke at the Oxford Union.

We are not human beings unless we band together and do whatever, however, whenever is necessary to see that our lives and property are protected, and I doubt that any person here would refuse to do the same thing were he in the same position

Malcolm x – in a speech broadcast by the BBC.

In areas of high immigration, election slogans were often used to exacerbate racism. In the West Midlands town of Smethwick, Peter Griffiths, Conservative candidate, ran with the slogan, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. This prompted Malcolm X to return to the UK in 1965. He claimed that ethnic minorities in Smethwick were being treated like the Jews in Nazi Germany and his visit helped put a stop to discriminatory housing practices.

Dec. 12, 1964 – Malcolm X, leader of the Black Muslims of America speaks at the Oxford Union. His motion at the meeting was
”Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”. Photo shows Malcolm X left with Eric Abrahams, President of the Union. Credit: Alamy

Malcolm X in Oxford

Listen to audio extracts from Malcolm X in Oxford – An Overtone Production for BBC Radio 4
Presented by Professor Stephen Tuck
Produced by Adam Fowler

Malcolm X in Oxford (Extract 1)

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    Prof.  Stephen Tuck:

     From his autobiography it’s clear that Malcolm X looked up facts about Britain. He was repulsed by the British Empire and shocked that a British intellectual had said the only history of Africa worth teaching started with European colonization. That academic was, in fact, Oxford’s Regis Professor of History in 1963.

    If Malcolm X was shocked by what he learned of Britain and the Empire, British students were shocked to learn about discrimination in the United States.

    Hannan Rose

    I did my Oxford entrance exam and then had two terms free before the next October when I went up to the university. I did something like 19,000 miles on Greyhound buses.

    Prof. Stephen Tuck:

    After he got to Oxford in 1962 Hannan Rose was to become the head of the student Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance (or JACARI for short), informed in part by his travels in the United States.

    Hannan Rose

    At one point going South, people changed a little bit where they were sitting and all the whites went to the front of the bus. It was just quite incredible seeing that happen.

    Prof. Stephen Tuck:

    Of course back then than other people were saying the problems were all over there in America and South Africa. But when you came back from America, was it with a view to changing England or were you still thinking about trying to support movements elsewhere?

    Hannan Rose:

    No I think one was concerned about and I think most people in JACARI and so on were aware that this was a problem without borders. You know that with all the issues going on about immigration control and so on, it was quite obvious that it was here as much as there.

Malcolm X in Oxford (Extract 2)

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    Prof. Stephen Tuck:  If one transatlantic story of these years was the defence of segregation and anti-immigration, another story was the efforts by African Americans and Black and Asian Britons to secure full rights. There were famous protests in America and Britain.

    [Rosa Parks: I was arrested for refusing to give my seat to a White male passenger on the orders of the bus driver.]

    Reporter:  The Montgomery Bus Boycott was over ninety nine percent effective, organized by a young Baptist minister soon to be known throughout the world: Dr Martin Luther King.

    Dr. Paul Stephenson: It illustrates our feeling, it brings the attention to the public to sympathize with our principle and will join us in the boycott where they can.

    Prof. Stephen Tuck:  The words could have been those of Martin Luther King but the accent belongs to an Englishman who led the Bristol bus boycott against the colour bar in employment, Britain’s best known protest of these years.

    Reporter:  The man behind this is Paul Stephenson who is the leader of the West Indian Development Council. I asked him whether it’s a matter of principle.

    Dr. Paul Stephenson:  The bus boycott was to expose racism in Britain, there was no law against racism. Because I felt that, being born in England and being the only Black person – in Forest Gate I was the only Black person – it was drawing attention to the injustices of what was happening to Black people when they came to England, which had not been fully exposed to the country at large.

    Prof. Stephen Tuck:  The American and British context were different. The Montgomery bus boycott was about the right to sit at the front of the bus; the Bristol boycott about the right to work on them. But Atlantic travellers were most struck by the similarities between the two countries, on the nature of racism. In these years, civil rights tactics, rhetoric and people criss-crossed the Atlantic. Malcolm X would come to Oxford. At the request of an American civil rights organization, Paul Stephenson went the other way, to Virginia, to challenge racial segregation there.

    Dr. Paul Stephenson:  I remember going into the John Marshall Hotel. It was a prestigious hotel and everyone I felt was looking at me.

     

    I said, ‘Do you have a reservation for Mr Stephenson from England?’

    Now the foyer was absolutely quiet, I could feel everyone was listening to what I was saying.

    Yes, we do have a reservation for Mr Stephenson from England, but he hasn’t arrived here yet.’ So I said. ‘I’m Mr Stephenson from England.’

    She looked at me and said, ‘You’re the Englishman?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m the Englishman.’

    The historical thing was, without realizing it, I was the first Black person to be invited and to sleep at the John Marshall Hotel.

Malcolm X in Oxford (Extract 3)

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    Prof. Stephen Tuck:

    Eric Abrahams is on record as saying that Malcolm X was very interested in the Oxford situation and (I quote) ‘He thought the place was on fire and it was, with regard to race relations, a microcosm of what was happening in England.’

    In terms of engaging with race in Britain, then, Oxford was a good entry point for the next leg of Malcolm X’s global journey.

    Speaker 1:

    His going to debate at the Oxford Union was a major component of his determination to internationalize the struggle against White supremacy.

    Prof. Stephen Tuck:

    He talked a bit about going to Oxford, just before he went out to Oxford. We’re lucky enough to know it because the FBI kindly tapped the speech so Hoover sent a memo to his agents: ‘Find out why Malcolm X is going to Oxford.’ I mean, he was worried about it.

    Speaker 1:

    Because it was a part you know at Oxford you had young Black people from the Caribbean and from Africa who were going to be possible leaders when they went back home – and South Asia – when they went back home – and so what better place to begin to develop a contact, a relationship with these people?

    And the fact that Oxford had invited him was another sign that he was moving in the right direction. And it was a recognition of what he was doing, what he had become. He had become an international person. See I feel as though he got something from being invited, but they also looked upon him as someone who had reached a level where they felt as though, you know, ‘We need to hear, we wanna hear what this dude is saying.’

Malcolm X in Oxford (Extract 4)

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    Prof. Stephen Tuck:

    The visit of Malcolm X to Oxford in 1964 reminds us that stereotypes can be misleading, that freedom of debate is essential and that racial discrimination is rarely just a foreign affair confined to hot spots elsewhere. These lessons from 50 years ago could hardly be more timely today….Benjamin Zephaniah.

    Benjamin Zephaniah:

    So much of our real history is just not talked about. And even if I talk about the civil rights movement in America and segregation there and apartheid in South Africa, that’s fine. But when I start to talk about it here, suddenly I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. You’re going on about all that radical stuff again. We’re going to rely on people just finding out little stories about Malcolm X or the Bristol bus boycott and all this stuff which should be mainstream history. I want the history of my people to be just an integral part of the history of all of us.

    Speaker:

    For Malcolm, if he had lived he would’ve wanted his children to be educated in the Ivy League or Oxbridge. He understood how privilege is enshrined, how class position is perpetuated.

    I can imagine him thinking, ‘All that we’re fighting for is the right for our children to have access to this.’

    Malcolm X (quoting Shakespeare) speaking at the Oxford Union:

    ‘To be, or not to be:

    Whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suffer

    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

    Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

    And by opposing, end them.’

Malcolm X in Oxford (Extract 5)

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    Malcolm X’s daughter [he& Betty Shabazz had 6 daughters but unfortunately we could not verify the speaker’s name]

     

    I always refer to my father’s visit to Oxford University as it being the best… One of my favourites. Because, it’s not my father reacting to an injust act. Rather, it is Malcolm amongst his favourite crowd, which are the students, and he has the opportunity to discuss and teach about the unjust acts and it being our responsibility to make changes in our society.

    Malcolm X:

    And I might add that in my conclusion, in fact, America is one of the best examples, when you read its history, about extremism. Patrick Henry said ‘liberty or death’ and that’s extreme, very extreme [laughter].

    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.

    Malcolm X’s daughter:

    When he says:

    ‘To be, or not to be:

    Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..

    Malcolm:

    The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…Moderation…

    Or to take up arms against a 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’s in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time.

    Malcolm X’s daughter:

    To be or not to be, you know, you either are going to make a change when you see wrong, or you’re not.

    Malcolm X:

    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. People in power have misused it and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods and I for one will join in with anyone, don’t care what colour you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on earth. Thank you.

     

     

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