Malcolm X in Oxford: Black power amid dreaming spires

Stephen Tuck revisits Malcolm X's historic 1964 speech at the Oxford Union and explains why his words so electrified the audience...

Malcolm X chats with Eric Abrahams – the Oxford Union president who vowed to “fill the room with blacks” – before giving his famous address on 3 December 1964. (Getty)

On the evening of 3 December 1964, a most unlikely figure was called to speak at the Oxford Union: Mr Malcolm X. It seemed quite a mismatch. The Oxford Union, the most prestigious debating society in the world, was the self-styled training ground for the politically ambitious of Britain’s young intellectual elite. Malcolm X, by contrast, was the global icon of revolutionary black nationalism. A one-time Harlem hustler and prison inmate, by 1964 Malcolm X was (in)famous for his call to oppose racism by “any means necessary”. When he arrived in Oxford, he was under a death threat (from former colleagues in the Nation of Islam, a religious movement), and the FBI was on his tail.

The peculiarity of his presence among the scions of the British establishment was not lost on Malcolm X. “I remember clearly that the minute I stepped off the train, I felt I’d suddenly backpedalled into Mayflower-time,” he told a friend. “The students were wearing caps and gowns as if they graduated the first day they arrived… and they were riding bicycles that should’ve been dumped long ago.” One of the first students he met, beset by nerves, could hardly speak in Malcolm X’s presence. Malcolm X wondered whether he had made a mistake accepting the invitation.

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