On the evening of 3 December 1964, the African American political activist Malcolm X made one of his final public speeches at a debate hosted by the Oxford Union. The motion, supported that evening by Malcolm X, was “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The occasion was duly recorded by the BBC and broadcast that evening to an audience of several million. However, despite its historical significance as Malcolm X’s last recorded speech, it is seldom shown today and is relatively rarely recalled or discussed.
Saladin Ambar aims to change this state of affairs by devoting an entire monograph to Malcolm X’s 30-minute speech and visit to Oxford, and he provides an abundance of contextual information about the speaker’s political views and circumstances at the time. This time was arguably the most important part of his short life, in terms of the rapid religious and political transition he made after parting company with the Nation of Islam and its leader, Elijah Mohammed, in March 1964.
Following that rupture, Malcolm X embraced orthodox Islam and its doctrine of the unity of mankind. He was strongly influenced by his pilgrimage to Mecca and the numerous visits he made to African countries, all in the space of a few months. He was particularly impressed by a new sense of African unity, most clearly, albeit imperfectly, expressed in the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. He was inspired to form his own Organisation of Afro-American Unity in June 1964 and began to see the struggle for the rights of African Americans as part of a wider struggle of Africans in the diaspora, as well as all humans, for human rights.
It is no mean feat to engage the reader’s attention for 170 pages on a speech that is reproduced in a mere 11, and Ambar is to be congratulated on pulling it off. He does so because we are still fascinated by the personality of Malcolm X and his rapidly developing political orientation. Indeed, it was an issue that Malcolm X referred to in the Oxford debate when he observed that his public image was generally based more on the disinformation provided by a hostile press than on reality.
Ambar draws on the reminiscences of some who met Malcolm X at the time, including the writers Tariq Ali and Carlos Moore; while these are interesting, they may tell us rather more about the speakers than Malcolm X. We still find ourselves asking just what, in the months leading up to his assassination, did he stand for? This book certainly helps us to answer that question. It is at times a little repetitious, and prone to provide too much analysis of language and rhetoric. But it does provide almost everything we need to know about the background to Malcolm X’s political thinking in the final few months of his life. That thinking is best summarised by the concluding lines of his speech at Oxford 50 years ago: “I for one will join in with anyone – I don’t care what colour you are – as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”
Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era
By Saladin Ambar
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £19.99
Published March 2014