Why did Malcolm X go to Oxford?

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 95: What did Malcolm X do at Oxford University?

“It wasn’t Columbus that discovered [the earth] was round,” Malcolm X provocatively once said. That fact, he claimed, had been worked out long before by the brilliant black scholars of Timbuktu, Mali—that revered center of learning at the gateway of the Sahara Desert—and it was only when white Europeans were “exposed to the science and learning that existed in the universities on the African continent,” Malcolm said, that they learned the real shape of our planet.

Whether Malcolm’s claim is true or not can be ascertained only when the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in Timbuktu have been digitized and analyzed. But Malcolm’s point was to stake a claim for black Africa as a source of civilization long before Columbus’ fellow conquistadors “discovered” it.

It has been almost 50 years since Malcolm X left the stage, and he still doesn’t have—and probably never will—a national holiday named for him like Christopher Columbus (or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for that matter), however much support there may be for it in some quarters. So I’ve always liked the irony of remembering Malcolm X on Columbus Day, so fierce was Malcolm’s attack on most things that descended from that singular journey in world history, not least slavery.

I’m especially mindful of Malcolm X this year, given the upcoming 50th anniversary of his legendary trek across the Atlantic to debate scholars at one of the world’s most elite universities. It was there that he took on the assumptions of Western scholars while reminding them of the atrocities committed by their ancestors who set about “discovering” the New World and Africa in 1492. Malcolm didn’t attend college, but he was, without a doubt, a genius, self-taught in the prison system of Massachusetts in the late 1940s and early ’50s (when he was still Malcolm Little). And he was fearless about bringing his anti-colonial message to college campuses courageous enough to invite him.

But the university to which Malcolm X traveled in December 1964 was different from any other he had ever visited, including Harvard, where he had spoken that March. This iconic university was symbolic of the British Empire itself, with a student body increasingly drawn from every place across the globe upon which the sun, in its daily course, set. I’m talking, of course, about the University of Oxford, home of the Oxford Union, that elite debating society and Oxbridge staple that gave Malcolm X an international stage as powerful as Columbus’ muskets. The weapons Malcolm used to conquer his foes, however, were his words.

Now in its 190th year, the Oxford Union has hosted historical figures as famous as William Ewart Gladstone and the Dalai Lama, with Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, Desmond Tutu, Salman Rushdie and Barry White in between. Yet I think it is fair to say that nothing before or since quite matches the night of Dec. 3, 1964, when Malcolm X came to Oxford as an invited guest to debate the topic of “extremism in the defense of liberty.”

For those not around at the time, understand this: At that crowded hour, the world was swirling with the struggle for civil rights in the United States, a nascent war in Vietnam and the uncharted path of independence in postcolonial Africa. Malcolm X didn’t fail to “break it down” for those young members of the British elite hanging on his every word. It’s fair to say that Oxford had never seen anything like him! Indeed, his performance was as iconic as any in the history of the Oxonian pantheon of great debates.

Oxford professor Stephen Tuck’s new book, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, due out in November from the University of California Press, lets us revisit that stage. In doing so, we see, hear and grasp the words behind the words that Malcolm X exchanged on that night of nights. I was pleased to write the foreword for Tuck’s book—and to preview it here.

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