Ambar examines the role of race, religion and identity politics in the U.S. and U.K. with a look at a 1964 debate speech given by controversial civil rights leader Malcolm X.
Author Saladin Ambar
Tavis: For some in the country, Malcolm X is still a polarizing figure. But a new book titled “Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era” I hope will go a long way to changing that particular perception.
This text, written by Lehigh University professor Saladin Ambar, takes a deep dive into the all-important speech Malcolm gave at Oxford University just months, in fact, before his assassination.
We’ll start our conversation first, though, with a look at some footage of what was recorded from this Oxford Union event back in 1964.
Tavis: Malcolm was a bad man.
Professor Saladin Ambar: He was. That he was.
Tavis: Let me ask you to set the stage for why Malcolm was invited to Oxford, what the debate was about. Thanks to the BBC, who carried this live, we have some footage that we can see all these years later. But set the stage for me of what this debate was all about.
Ambar: Well in 1964 there was a presidential election in the United States. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, had uttered a rather controversial phrase at his nomination address, where he said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
It was seen as throwing a bouquet to radical organizations like the Klan and to the John Birch Society. Oxford heard that address by Goldwater and picked it up and decided it would be a good motion for their debate that they were holding in December.
So they Jamaican-born Oxford Union Society president, fellow by the name of Eric Abrams, invited Malcolm to come over to participate in the debate, and he agreed.
He was really interested in extending his organization to a number of European capitals and getting the word out about the changes that he was interested in making in his life, and also in his politics, and so he jumped right on it.
Tavis: Tell me more about that last point. What did Malcolm hope he would get out of the appearance?
Ambar: Well he was very shrewd in his understanding of what the media was all about, and he wanted to use the BBC to get his message across to the Black and Asian and Brown diaspora not only in the United States, obviously, but throughout the world.
He understood it would be broadcast in the commonwealth countries, and so he knew it was a ready opportunity to expand his message outside of the more filtered domain of the American media. He knew he’d have a better shot abroad than he would in his home country.
Tavis: What do we know about what his preparation was? We know what the topic was, and obviously, Malcolm was told that in advance. But what do we know about what his preparation included for this appearance?
Ambar: Well thankfully, because of the Schomburg Center in Harlem, we have a lot of documents from his diary about his preparation. A lot of times, he’s focusing on media imagery, and he’s taking notes in the margins of former speeches about what he wants to say at Oxford and elsewhere.
Notes about Black nationalism, notes about being open to working with anybody, notes about the fact that white supremacy is coming to an end. So he’s taking these notes, and they’re really sketch marks. In many ways, Malcolm is a man in exile.
He’s on the run, and so there’s not a lot of time for reflection. He’s under serious threat, and so he just carves out these little notes to himself over the course of several months leading up to Oxford, and he delivers a speech in Paris which is sort of preparatory, about a week before the Oxford event, and that helps, I think, frame what’s to come at Oxford for him.
Tavis: When you say he’s “on the run,” I know what you mean by that, but unpack that a little bit more for me.
Ambar: Well both in terms of his former organization, the Nation of Islam, there were elements, clearly, within the Nation that were interested in harming and/or killing Malcolm, but also our own government, to be frank, was interested in his demise in one way or the other.
So there had been a longstanding sense that he was marked for death. He articulated it as much at Oxford when he sits down with Tariq Ali outside of the Randolph Hotel, and Ali says, “Man, what a great talk, this was marvelous, can’t wait to see you again,” and Malcolm says, “This time next year, I’ll be dead.”
Tavis: There was a point, as you well know, in Dr. King’s life where when King was invited to speak in Europe. He and Belafonte, Harry Belafonte, are going to Europe for some fundraising and for some appearances and some speeches.
The State Department did everything they could to shut that down. There’s something about our government then and even today, quite frankly, that doesn’t, they don’t so much like you going on foreign soil –
Tavis: – and critiquing the United States of America. How did they treat Malcolm, and how did Malcolm view what he was up against?
Ambar: Well it’s interesting, because prior to Oxford, Malcolm had been to Africa and the Middle East. He goes to Ghana, and after he leaves Ghana, the United States government sends James Farmer over to sort of clean up after Malcolm.
Malcolm is saying, look, racism hasn’t ended in the United States. I don’t care what they say about the Civil Rights Act. People are still being beaten, there’s still police brutality, there’s still tremendous inequality.
So the State Department sees this in the context of the Cold War. They’re trying to paint a rosier picture of American democracy, and instead of painting that picture, Malcolm is condemning it for the falsity that it represents.
Tavis: For those who see Malcolm in two ways, the old Malcolm, the new Malcolm; that is to say during this time with the Nation of Islam and after his time with the Nation of Islam in terms of his politics, and you hinted at this a little bit earlier, how did he straddle that sort of fence between people seeing him as this radical in the past and his being open to having conversations like the one at Oxford?
Ambar: Well I think Oxford was the perfect forum for him to address that stereotype, that false image of him. He really recognizes that in order for him to have a fair hearing, he’s got to present a new kind of face, or at least a face that the media hadn’t been willing to accept before about him.
He joked about having lunch with a white female student on Oxford’s campus, and she says, “Well, where are your horns?” He says, “I don’t have them, I bring them out only for special people.”
But really, through humor, through incisive commentary, by quoting Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” he’s bringing a full array of intellectual power to the Oxford debate, to say in so many words that I understand your culture, I understand your politics.
I’m not unlike you; you just need to give us, meaning the Black man in America and the Black diaspora, the brown diaspora that’s seeking freedom, you need to uphold your own sense of justice for us as well. So he’s using language that they’re quite familiar with at Oxford.
Tavis: I’ve heard my friend, Professor Cornel West, say so many times of Malcolm X that he never went to a university, but a university went through him. That Malcolm was such an avid reader, a voracious reader, how does a guy who has never been formally educated hold his own at a place like Oxford?
Ambar: Well it’s striking. During my research it became quite apparent that his first Oxford debate was in prison, in Massachusetts. They had sent a team of Oxford and Cambridge folks over to debate in the Norfolk penal colony, and that was probably where he got exposed to not only debating, but Oxford students.
Malcolm was a voracious reader. He was really a primary intellect in the American political thought tradition, and not really given the credit he’s due for being not just a fiery speaker, but someone that was also deeply thoughtful, had penetrating, insightful comments to make about any number of topics.
He loved the forum of Oxford. He loved being there, and I think you can see a joy, not only in the delivery of the message, but in his time there. He’s really at home in the forum of debate.
Tavis: When you say he used even humor, those are two words that people think are a bit oxymoronic. You don’t put Malcolm X and humor in the same sentence, and yet you say he employed that.
Ambar: Well there’s, if you look at the speech, there’s laughter throughout. He’s quite biting, but he’s also self-mocking at times. It’s just a wonderful look at a person who can be radical, but also knows how to reach human beings.
He understands that humor plays a role in casting yourself in a different kind of light.
Tavis: We know full well from history that when these debates are televised it can make a fundamental difference, just the fact that you’re being broadcast life. I think of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy as the best example in our country of how a debate seen on television can make a huge difference. How did Malcolm do from a TV broadcast standpoint?
Ambar: Well the ratings went through the roof, actually. It was shown, like, at 10:30 at night, and you know how late night can be difficult. But if you got a good product, people want to come in and watch it, and that’s what happened.
People tuned in throughout all the UK, throughout the commonwealth, and I think he really did an exceptional job of portraying himself the way he wanted to. And so I think for him, Oxford was a success.
He lost the debate in the conventional sense, but I think he got the message out that he really wanted to. So from the standpoint of it being a home run of sorts for him, I think he was just at the cusp of achieving what he wanted to achieve by way of organization in Europe, and Oxford was really his first foray into that.
Tavis: It was his first foray into that, and it turned out to be his last address before an international audience. Months later, Malcolm is, in fact, shot dead at the Audubon Ballroom there in New York City.
Ambar: That’s right.
Tavis: How do you contextualize the speech, given his death just a few months later?
Ambar: Well I think for those of us who think we’re familiar with Malcolm, you might find the Oxford speech to be surprising. It’s really the first and really the most comprehensive window into his political thought, his matured political thought at that stage of his life.
He’s not just a radical, which he is, but he’s reasoned, he’s thoughtful, he’s contemplative, and I think it has an array of connections between the American civil rights struggle, the Black freedom struggle in America, and what’s going on in terms of immigration, in terms of what’s going on in housing discrimination in places like Smethwick, England, and in London and in Paris.
He’s really connecting the dots at Oxford in a really amazing way. So the speech contains really a 360 kind of window into who he is at the last stages of his life.
Tavis: To your point, I think it’s fair to say you don’t really know Malcolm until you’ve had a chance to view this appearance at Oxford, and courtesy of this new text, you can go a little deeper than that.
The book from Saladin Ambar, professor at Lehigh University, is called “Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era.” Professor Ambar, thanks for the text, and good to have you on this program.
Ambar: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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