Malcolm X in Oxford

April 23 2008



A more perfect union

From The Edge of the American West via Lance Knobel, Malcolm X speaking at the Oxford Union on December 3 1964, a few weeks before his assassination, which happened a few weeks before the centenary of Lincoln’s.

X had an eloquence that eclipses Barack Obama’s and rivals Martin Luther King’s. He has more humour than King, who as far as I can see had none. X’s words of violence get no boos from the Oxford students.

Wikipedia quotes the historian Robin DG Kelley. “Malcolm X has been called many things: Pan-Africanist, father of Black Power, religious fanatic, closet conservative, incipient socialist, and a menace to society. The meaning of his public life – his politics and ideology – is contested in part because his entire body of work consists of a few dozen speeches and a collaborative autobiography whose veracity is challenged. Malcolm has become a sort of tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which people of different positions can write their own interpretations of his politics and legacy. Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas can both declare Malcolm X their hero.”

Others will no doubt have written on that tabula rasa proto-Islamist. Peter Tatchell, referring to Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, New York, Station Hill, 1991 has written potential gay activist. Many, perhaps all, of the two dozen recorded speeches must be on YouTube. “Malcolm said that the ‘X’ is meant to symbolize the rejection of ‘slave names’ and the absence of an inherited African name to take its place. The ‘X’ is also the brand that many slaves received on their upper arm.” (Wikipedia)

Edited facts from Wikipedia, which states sources in many cases. Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was an outspoken Baptist lay speaker, supporter of Marcus Garvey and member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Three of his father’s brothers died violently at the hands of white men and one of his uncles had been lynched. His mother’s father was white. Malcolm knew nothing of him except what he described as his mother’s shame. Malcolm got his light complexion from him. Initially he felt that it was a status symbol to be light-skinned, but later he would say that he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me”.

The family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926, and to Lansing, Michigan, shortly after. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was found dead, having been run over by a streetcar in Lansing. Authorities ruled his death a suicide. Malcolm said that the black community disputed the cause of death. His family had frequently found themselves the target of harassment by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group his father accused of burning down their home in 1929, and many blacks felt that the Black Legion had killed Earl Little. Malcolm said the insurance company that had issued the larger of two policies on Earl’s life accepted the police determination that Earl Little’s death had been a suicide, and accordingly refused to pay. Louise Little had a nervous breakdown and was declared legally insane in December 1938. Malcolm and his siblings were split up and sent to different foster homes. Louise Little was formally committed to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo, Michigan. She remained there until Malcolm and his brothers and sisters secured her release 26 years later.

Malcolm graduated from junior high school in Lansing at the top of his class, but dropped out soon after a teacher told him that his aspirations of being a lawyer were “no realistic goal for a nigger”. After enduring a series of foster homes, he was sent to a detention centre. Then he moved to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella Little Collins. In Boston he held various jobs and intermittently found employment with the New Haven Railroad. In 1942, at the age of 17, he became involved with Boston’s underworld. Between 1943 and ’46 he drifted between Boston and New York City. He avoided the draft by pretending to be insane.

In Boston in January 1946, he was arrested for burglary and indicted for carrying firearms. He was sentenced to eight to ten years in Massachusetts State Prison. There, he read, and began to form links with the Nation of Islam, including with its leader Elijah Muhammad. In February 1948, mostly through his sister’s efforts, he was transferred to an experimental prison in Norfolk, Massachusetts, that had a much larger library. Malcolm later reflected: “Months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.” On August 7 1952, he received parole and was released.

He visited Elijah Muhammad in Chicago and changed his name to X. The FBI opened a file on him and concluded that he had an “asocial personality with paranoid trends (pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia)” and had sought treatment for his disorder. This was supported by a letter by him intercepted by the FBI, dated June 29 1950, which said, referring to his rejection by the military, “Everyone has always said … Malcolm is crazy, so it isn’t hard to convince people that I am.”

He became active in Nation of Islam temples in Boston and Harlem. From his adoption of the Nation of Islam in 1952 until he left the organisation in 1964, he promoted the Nation’s teachings. He referred to whites as “devils” who had been created in a misguided breeding programme by a black scientist, and predicted the inevitable (and imminent) return of blacks to their natural place at the top of the social order. He has been widely considered the second most influential leader of the movement, after Elijah Muhammad. He opened further temples, including one in Philadelphia. He is largely credited with increasing membership in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. He inspired Cassius Clay, who became Muhammad Ali, to join the Nation of Islam. Like Clay, he later left the Nation of Islam and joined mainstream Sunni Islam.

In 1958, Malcolm married Betty X (née Sanders) in Lansing, Michigan. They had six daughters, all reared in Islam and all of whom carried the family name of Shabazz: Attallah, born 1958; Qubilah, born 1960; Ilyasah, born 1962; Gamilah (Gumilah), born 1964; and twins, Malaak and Malikah, born after Malcolm’s death in 1965. After their split from the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm and Betty X adopted the last name, Shabazz. Betty died in 1997 when her grandson Malcolm (born 1985, son of Qubilah) set fire to her apartment in Westchester County, New York.

In 1960 Malcolm met Castro during Castro’s visit to the UN in New York. In 1963, he started collaborating with Alex Haley on The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book had not been finished at the time of his assassination in 1965. Haley completed it and published it later that year.

There is no sense in the Oxford speech that America had just come through the year, a century after the end of the Civil War, that had produced the most comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation to date, the Civil Rights Act, which ended American apartheid. Malcolm criticised the 1963 March on Washington, which he called “the farce on Washington”. He said he didn’t know why black people were excited over a demonstration “run by whites in front of a statue of a president who has been dead for a hundred years and who didn’t like us when he was alive”.

When asked for a comment about the assassination of President Kennedy, he said that it was a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”. He added that “chickens coming home to roost never made me sad. It only made me glad.” This remark prompted a public outcry. The Nation of Islam publicly censured their former shining star. Malcolm retained his post and rank as minister, but Elijah Muhammad banned him from public speaking for 90 days.

He announced his break from the Nation of Islam on March 8 1964, having alleged the adultery of Elijah Mohammed. He stayed close to some of the teachings, but began modifying them. He explicitly advocated political and economic black nationalism, as opposed to the Nation of Islam’s religious nationalism. In April, he made a speech titled The Ballot or the Bullet. He was in contact with several orthodox Muslims, who encouraged him to learn about orthodox Islam. He converted to orthodox Sunni Islam and in April 1964 made his pilgrimage to Mecca, making the seven circuits around the Kaaba, drinking from the Zamzam Well and running between the hills of Safah and Marwah seven times. According to the Autobiography, on this trip Malcolm saw Muslims of different races interacting as equals and came to believe that Islam could transcend racial problems, though his status as an authentic Muslim on the Hajj was questioned by the Saudi authorities because of his inability to speak Arabic and his United States passport. His history with the Nation of Islam did not count in his favour, or perhaps it counted negatively.

He visited Africa three times, once in 1959 and twice in 1964. In 1959 he visited Egypt (United Arab Republic), Sudan, Nigeria and Ghana to arrange a tour for Elijah Muhammad, which occurred in December 1959. The first of his two trips in 1964 (when he also went to Mecca) lasted from April 13 until May 21. The second began on July 9 and lasted eighteen weeks. On one or other of those visits he passed through, in whatever order, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Dar Es Salaam, Lagos, Ibadan, Accra, Conakry, Algiers and Casablanca. Between the visits, in New York, he announced the foundation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, at whose opening rally he said: “The time for you and me to allow ourselves to be brutalized nonviolently has passed. Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you. And when you can bring me a nonviolent racist, bring me a nonviolent segregationist, then I’ll get nonviolent. But don’t teach me to be nonviolent until you teach some of those crackers to be nonviolent.”

Is there evidence for any mellowing or maturity? The Oxford speech, at the end of that climactic year 1964 – he was only 39 – shows a man of considerable intelligence. In an interview with Gordon Parks in early 1965, he said: “I realized racism isn’t just a black and white problem. It’s brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another. Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant – the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together – and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] [Nation of Islam] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then – like all [Black] Muslims – I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years. That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days – I’m glad to be free of them.”

At the end of the year he visits Paris and Oxford. He had regularly received threats of assassination: there’s a picture of him taken in 1964 peering from a window in his home holding a gun. On February 21 1965 he was assassinated, apparently by Nation of Islam members, while making a speech in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. There are conspiracy theories.

Ossie Davis delivered a eulogy at his funeral, describing Malcolm as “our shining black prince”. “There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain – and we will smile. Many will say turn away – away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man – and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate – a fanatic, a racist – who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.” Malcolm X was buried at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York. At the gravesite after the ceremony, friends took the shovels away from the waiting gravediggers and buried Malcolm themselves. Later that month, actors Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier became co-chairs of the New York affiliate of the Educational Fund for the Children of Malcolm X Shabazz.

How did Islam get to America in the first place? It still feels slightly unAmerican. So does Catholicism. Some people have claimed that Columbus had an Arab navigator on one of his ships, but there seems to be no hard evidence for this. Pedro Álvares Cabral, who is regarded as the discoverer of Brazil, may have had one on at least one of his ships in his voyage of 1500. The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos thought he did and commemorated the fact, if it was a fact, in a cycle of orchestral suites called O Descobrimento do Brasil (1937), by inserting a movement called Impressão moura. The design of the caravels which made these voyages was influenced by Arab ships. According to Wikipedia: “Estevánico of Azamor may have been the first Muslim to enter the historical record in North America [in 1527-9]. Estevánico was a Berber originally from North Africa who explored the future states of Arizona and New Mexico for the Spanish Empire.”

But the main wave came with the slave ships, starting (in what became US territory) in the 1520s and ending when the US outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808. 10% or 20% of the slaves who arrived in North America from West Africa were originally Muslim.

Then came modern-style Muslim immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, starting roughly in the 1840s. Then, recently, have come other waves: Iranians, Afghans, Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia.

The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit by Wallace Fard Muhammad in July 1930. It parted from orthodox Islam in a number of ways. Its appeal was with blacks, but its founder wasn’t black. He seems to have been a New Zealander of half-(subcontinental) Indian descent. Black leaders followed: Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Elijah’s son Warith Deen Mohammed, and the particularly unattractive Louis Farrakhan, who is still the acting head of the movement and whom some accuse of complicity in Malcolm X’s assassination.

I can’t end this post without mentioning that The Autobiography of Malcolm X refers to Arnold Toynbee, who was big in America from the late ’40s until his opposition to the Vietnam War and the decline of his reputation more generally marginalised him. X refers to an intermittently sensible article Toynbee had published in The New York Times on September 29 1963 on a possible global race war. Toynbee had referred to “white (i.e., bleached) human beings”. (On the minus side, X accuses him of having said that there was no African history. He did not do so in that article and the remark is unfair. X may have been thinking of Trevor-Roper, whose remark on the matter in the same year I quoted here.) X also mentioned Toynbee in a US radio show called Community Corner on December 27 1964, just after returning from Oxford.

Blurb for the Penguin edition of the autobiography on Amazon: “By the time of his tragic murder in 1965, Malcolm X was world famous as the ‘angriest black man in America’. From hustling, cocaine addiction and armed violence in the ghettos of Harlem he had turned, in a dramatic prison conversion, to the fervour of the Black Muslims. Speaking out to millions of oppressed blacks, he brought new hope and self-respect. But was Malcolm X, in the words of one critic, merely a racist preaching hatred or was he a founding father, whose passionate eloquence has helped to nourish the modern anti-racist movement?”

9 Responses to “Malcolm X in Oxford”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The phrase “white (i.e., bleached) human beings” seems to be authentically Toynbee’s. It was quoted by Malcolm X and then by other black leaders.

    Postscript, August 31 2013: A sentence in the first volume of the Study suggests that Toynbee took “bleached” from “Dixon, R. B.: The Racial History of Man (New York 1923, Scribner)”.

  2. […] 2,000 sites that make the unlikely pair. None of them, I’ll reckon, are as interesting as David Derrick’s discursive survey of Malcolm X’s life and […]

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Browsing in The Times archive, you get a sense of increasingly frenetic activity towards the end of X’s life. He was at the Oxford Union on December 3, though The Times did not report this.

    An article on February 5 describes his activities in the US.

    He returns to London on February 6 to attend a congress of the Council of African Organizations. “He described himself as chairman of the ‘Organization of Afro-American Unity’.”

    He flies to Paris on February 9 to give a lecture, but is refused entry, and returns to London. “A considerable number of American Negroes living in Paris were at Orly airport when he arrived this morning, but he was not allowed to make any statement. […] He is due to speak at the London School of Economics tomorrow, and to return to New York at the end of the week.”

    On February 12 he visits Smethwick and Birmingham. The next day he returns to New York.

    On the 14th a bomb is thrown into his house. He escapes from a back window with his wife and daughters.

    He is discussed in the British Parliament on the 18th. On the 22nd he is shot dead in Harlem.

  4. Paul Lee Says:

    Dear David,

    I was not aware until I read your 25 April 2008 post that the London Times archive is available online. How would one gain access to it? Is it free? Thanx.

    Your summary of Malcolm X’s “increasingly frenetic activity” as reported in The Times is interesting. Would that more of those who are interested in Malcolm X’s life and legacy would exhibit such industry and discipline.

    The Times reported three of Malcolm X’s four visits to Britain (July and December 1964 and February 1965), only missing one (late Novemeber 1964). However, to my knowledge, only one British paper — The Daily Telegraph — reported the latter.

  5. davidderrick Says:


    Thanks. This is hurried reply, but there may be answers here:

    and here:

    I may do another X post in a few days.


  6. davidderrick Says:

    The Impressão moura to which I referred also paid tribute to the Moorish heritage of Portugal more generally.

  7. […] July 13, 2008 This follows a post called Malcolm X in Oxford and the comments after […]

  8. […] Malcolm X refers to Toynbee in his autobiography. Details here. […]

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