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Jason BerryJanuary 07, 2015
Malcolm X at Oxford Unionby Saladin Ambar

Oxford University Press. 240p $29.95

Malcolm X’s ideological journey from the black separatist Nation of Islam to his standing as an independent activist, renewed by a sense of Islam as a global faith, animates this probing, readable book by Saladin Ambar, an assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Ambar’s focus is Malcolm’s 1964 appearance at the Oxford Union Society of Oxford University in a debate on race relations. The precise topic of the debate was a phrase from Senator Barry Goldwater’s speech that year in accepting the Republican presidential nomination: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Malcolm X arrived in an England that had barely begun to emerge as the postcolonial, multicolored society we see today. In the American South, a lethal white backlash to civil rights demonstrations was jarring the national psyche. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign to secure an elected presidency, a year after he succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy, used Goldwater’s lines to portray him as a reckless extremist. Johnson won in a landslide.

Goldwater’s de facto equation of extremism as a virtue in defense of liberty made for a riveting exchange at the Oxford debating society. As the author points out, the university mirrored a national elite that had lost its empire. “As the institution became less white, less male, and less privileged in the postwar period,” he writes, “the politics of the nation and the university were compelled to address these changes, to grapple with the extremist sentiments against this new field of race relations.”

On his trip to Mecca, given fine grain detail by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the diversity of peoples within Islam sparked an awakening that led to his break from the separatist Muslims in America. But where Martin Luther King Jr. held nonviolence as “a nonnegotiable principle,” writes Ambar, “For Malcolm X, nonviolence was premised upon reciprocity—a form of equivalency in moral conduct.”

He drew applause in the debate for saying, “I believe in Allah, I believe in Muhammad as the apostle of Allah, I believe in brotherhood, of all men, but I don’t believe in brotherhood with anybody who’s not ready to practice brotherhood with our people.”

It is hard to imagine a remark like that in the coverage of today’s embattled map of Islam. But Malcolm was waging a war of words with public opinion in America, and indeed Western countries wherever he could attract press. He had a wide viewfinder on global events.

In the Congo, the independence leader Patrice Lumumba won election as prime minister only to be killed after speaking out against Western control of the region’s vast mineral wealth. C.I.A. historian Timothy Weiner, in Legacy of Ashes, reports that the CIA paid $250,000 to Lumumba adversary Joseph Mobutu, who had him kidnapped and shot dead. Mobutu as dictator went on to steal billions from American aid as a reliable ally in fighting Communism.

At the time, Malcolm X had only hunches about how and why Lumumba died; but in the revolutionary aftershocks of a destabilized country, Malcolm rained his scorn on “American-trained pilots...dropping bombs on villages where they have no defense whatsoever against such planes, blowing to bits Black women—Congolese women, Congolese children, Congolese babies. This is extremism. But it is never referred to as extremism, because it is endorsed by the West, it’s financed by America.”

Ambar might have profitably treated Malcolm’s rhetoric as an echo of George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” on the distortions of language in service of political ends. Nevertheless, the author brings a keen interpretive edge to bear on what Malcolm X achieved at the Oxford event, his oratory drawing the audience toward an understanding of the historical memory that he insisted on as a fundamental in discussing politics. The irony of Goldwater’s language hangs heavy with each brush stroke in Ambar’s textured portrait:

For Malcolm, extremism in the defense of liberty was a rational act. That black people had to generate explanations for its necessity was the truly ‘radical’ conception. In this way, Malcolm saw the reality of American, and indeed, global race relations as part of a system premised upon absurdity, a kind of color-infused, surrealistic world that offered you the back of the hand if you described it for what it was.

A year before his assassination in Harlem by three Nation of Islam gunmen, Malcolm X impressed his initially skeptical audience at Oxford with a lightning rod intelligence and flashes of humor. Professor Ambar includes a transcript that makes for an absorbing read in its own right. At one point, Malcolm makes reference to a dinner that he had had the night before the debate at which a young woman told him:

Well, I’m surprised that you’re not what I expected,” and I said what do you mean? [Laughter.] And she said, “Well, I was looking for your horns.” {Laughter}, and so I told her I have them, but I keep them hidden [Laughter] unless someone draws them out.

We can only wonder where Malcolm X’s journey might have led had he not been murdered for speaking truth to a power structure of racial separatists. He never became an apostle of integration; he wanted justice first and last for people of color. In a poignant epilogue, Saladin Ambar writes of the impact Malcolm had on his generation of young black males who “took on new names—if not because of Malcolm, then at least with his ghostly assistance...Many of us made knowing Malcolm a kind of vocation.”

Malcolm X at Oxford Union is a testament to the depth of that vocation.

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