Malcolm X at Oxford: ‘They’re going to kill me soon’

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‘Who will kill you, Malcolm?’ … Malcolm X at The University of Oxford before the debate on extremism and liberty. Photograph: Getty Images

Just before his assassination, the radical black activist took part in a debate at Oxford. Tariq Ali recalls their meeting, which left him in a state of shock – and is now the subject of a TV show

19 Feb 2019 | | The Guardian

Malcolm X became internationally famous the day after President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Asked to comment, Malcolm calmly informed US TV reporters that he was not at all surprised that “the chickens were coming home to roost”.

It was November 1963 and he was by then a leading member of the Nation of Islam, a black separatist organisation. Its leader, Elijah Muhammad, publicly disavowed him and banned him from public speaking.

I had arrived at Oxford a month previously and witnessed the Kennedy assassination on the BBC and read Malcolm’s comments in the press.

A year later, Eric Abrahams – the radical Jamaican president of the Oxford Union (and a friend) – decided to invite Malcolm to participate in his farewell debate. The subject was a quote from Barry Goldwater, the alt-right Republican candidate for the presidency: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

To our astonishment, Malcolm agreed to come and defend the motion. A problem arose: the union did not have the funds to pay Malcolm’s fare. Abrahams mentioned this to an acquaintance in the BBC.

Within days, the Beeb agreed to buy his plane ticket, provided it had exclusive rights to filming and broadcasting the debate. We laughed a lot and agreed. Yes, the BBC was a different outfit in those times and its director-general, Hugh Greene, appeared mild-mannered but was fiercely independent-minded.

As a result, the debate took place and is now part of Malcolm X’s history: two books on his visit to the Oxford Union; a movie under way, and, later this week, a documentary to launch the Smithsonian Channel in the UK.

I met him on the day of the debate. He greeted me with a huge smile as a “Muslim brother”. I felt I had to disillusion him immediately. “Only in name,” I whispered. “I’m an atheist.” To my amazement, he roared. “I’ve just finished a trip to the Muslim world,” he said, “and met many people like you.”

It had been an educative trip and he spoke of how the theologians at the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo had convinced him that, whatever else, the Nation of Islam was not a Muslim organisation. Islam was universalist, not separatist in any sense of the word. The sight of blue-eyed, fair-skinned pilgrims at Mecca, which pleased him, helped complete his ideological break with his former colleagues.

Malcolm X. Oxford Union Debate, Dec. 3 1964

His speech at the union was not one of his virtuoso performances in terms of rhythm, improvised cadences, silences and eruptions. At his peak, his speeches were like word-jazz, with gestures but no other accompaniment, except the response of the crowd. But that was reserved for his own people. In this, he was not unlike Fidel Castro, whom he had met and hosted in Harlem a few years previously.

Here, in a foreign land at a famous location, he was slightly bemused, whispering to me: “I’ve never addressed such a well-dressed white audience before.” The importance of his speech lay in its political content. He broke with black separatism in public, declaring that intermarriages between races were fine and that black and white people had to get together and fight the system.

Malcolm’s ideas were in a process of transition. He was moving away from a narrow and claustrophobic form of identity politics that had become politically crippling. The storms lay ahead but were visible in the hope that could be seen on the faces of many in the audience that night who gave Malcolm a huge ovation.

Later that night, we spoke in private about many things: he was completely opposed to the Vietnam war and was supportive of the Cuban revolution that had pushed him to study the ideas of socialism and Marx. What of his sparring contemporary, Martin Luther King? He expressed respect but disagreement.

As I rose to leave, I hoped we would meet again. His response stunned me. He was doubtful that we would because “they’re going to kill me soon”. I sat down in a state of shock and two thoughts went through me simultaneously: either he’s a hustler or a very great man indeed. History’s verdict confirmed my instinct.

“Who’ll kill you, Malcolm?” He was in no doubt that it would be either the Nation of Islam or the FBI or both. Within three months, he was assassinated by the combination he had predicted, though the entire truth remains hidden from public view.

Malcolm was convinced that the establishment of the time might tolerate black leaders as long as they stayed in the ghettoes. Any attempts to mobilise forces outside would be crushed.

Three years after Malcolm X’s death, King was assassinated, too. Confronted by the realities of imperialism and war, King had broken with the Democrats, was thinking of standing as an independent candidate for the presidency, and denounced his own country as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”.

The “good black, bad black” dichotomy was never that accurate. Both King and Malcolm were political leaders in transition; both were breaking with previously held positions. Where might they have been had their lives not been brutally truncated? Who can say?

Malcolm’s famous description of the two-party system still remains the subject of much debate: “Foxes and wolves usually are of the same breed. They belong to the same family – I think it’s called canine.

And the difference is that the wolf when he shows you his teeth, you know that he’s your enemy; and the fox, when he shows you his teeth, he appears to be smiling. But no matter which of them you go with, you end up in the dog-house.”

 When Tariq Ali Met Malcolm X is on the Smithsonian Channel on 21 February at 9pm.

Tariq Ali has been a leading figure of the international left since the 60s. He has been writing for the Guardian since the 70s. He is a long-standing editor of the New Left Review and a political commentator published on every continent. His books include The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power, and The Obama Syndrome

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