Saladin Ambar, author of Malcolm X at the Oxford Union, spoke to Socialist Review about Malcolm's historic 1964 speech, and why his ideas will remain relevant as long as oppression persists.
I was looking at Malcolm X speeches for my students and I came across the Oxford speech. The more I looked at it the more I thought this was not just a speech; it was a moment. There was this “Oxford moment” both in Malcolm’s life and in the political life of the UK with the 1964 election and a changing dynamic in terms of colonialism, and in the US, with race relations starting to go in a different direction.
With the speech Malcolm was trying to articulate to an international audience the plight of black people in America. There was a belief that, with the passing of the Civil Rights Act that summer and the election of Lyndon Johnson, who was a liberal, at least compared with the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater, things would improve and “race relations” would be a thing of the past. Malcolm wanted to say that this was far too celebratory; that black people were still facing a lot of hostility and violence and repression in the US. And he wanted to get that message across to an international audience.
Secondly, he wanted to link the black struggle in the US with the freedom struggles of all people across the world, and more specifically the black and brown diaspora that he had been learning about in England, and that was emergent in France. From my research for the book it became clear that he was also considering extending his organisation of Afro-American Unity to Amsterdam. He thought that it was possible to link these struggles organisationally as well as on the basis of the similar kinds of repression they were facing. This is one of the reasons he goes to Smethwick, and tries to make links with individuals in Paris — he’s making the point that the black and brown diaspora in Europe has something in common with black people in America.
The global dimension was important because he felt that the Negro cause was never going to be fairly heard in America and it had to be taken to an international arena. Once the BBC agreed to broadcast the debate it sealed the deal for him — he knew that he would get the best chance of an unfettered hearing. Today, despite the best efforts of some to imagine that we’re in a colour-blind society, we know racism persists. And as long as it persists Malcolm X is going to be popular, because he speaks to people who are experiencing racial oppression in their everyday lives.
The socio-economic component that is an additional form of repression — he speaks to that as well. More than anyone else in the 20th century, in America at least, Malcolm X spoke to the underclass, those with little hope, those with little opportunity. He was an orator of the streets first and foremost. He really was able to connect with the most downtrodden in any society. In a way he was a cultural precursor to hip hop music in that he spoke to the dispossessed and people who felt that otherwise their voices would not be heard.
So long as people are repressed, so long as people are judged by the colour of their skin, so long as the racial dimension of their lives shapes their identity in a negative way, Malcolm is going to speak to them and to their plight, and say, “I recognise you. I know who you are; I recognise your experience first hand.” His personal story speaks to that.
Because he spoke in such brutally honest and plain language he continues to have resonance today. Anyone can listen to his speeches online or pick up his autobiography and feel the earnestness and truth of what he’s saying.
When I was at college we were taught about the 1956 uprising in Hungary and the 1968 Czech uprising and we were taught that these were good responses to totalitarianism. All Malcolm X did was seek to say that black anger and retaliatory responses to repression were also legitimate. This is something that in white societies we take for granted — that people have the right to collectively act against their repression. There ought to be nothing strange about black people or others doing the same.
One of the things Malcolm highlighted at Oxford was the hypocrisy of black people in America or in Africa or elsewhere somehow being expected to abide their repression patiently and silently while those in the West would not. He held a mirror up to the colonial and former colonial powers, including the US, and suggested that there was a very evident duplicity there.
This message continues. We can’t ask protesters in Ferguson to be peaceful and non-violent while in Afghanistan and Pakistan we bomb indiscriminately. We’re willing to suffer lots of civilian casualties to maybe catch or kill one or two prospective terrorists and we think nothing of it; at least our governments does not. As long as that hypocrisy remains, Malcolm’s words will continue to point out these discrepancies.
Saladin Ambar is Assistant Professor in the department of Political Science at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA. He is author of Malcolm X at the Oxford Union (Oxford University Press, 2014).
For Malcolm X: road to revolution click here.