By Mahmoud Ally (Pembroke)
Watching the twelve-minute YouTube clip of Malcolm X’s speech at the Oxford Union and then reading Stephen Tuck’s book, my mind ran back to the first time I saw a poster of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a black power salute at ’68 Olympic Games. I always felt that image was pregnant with emancipatory potential — it was radical, it was courageous, but most importantly it was necessary. Malcolm X at the Oxford Union — something about the phrase, his presence in that institution at that time — conjures up the same powerful, radical image of protest, a bass-thumping, outspoken, Public Enemy record.
Tuck, Professor of Modern History at Pembroke College, adroitly shows why this was so. The Oxford Union (and the University as a whole) was where the young politicians of tomorrow came to cut their cloth. The University as whole had a deep connection with the Empire; not least the most infamous of empire builders, Cecil Rhodes, who went to Oriel College. For Malcolm X to speak at the Union — not just a black man, but as a de facto leader of what many considered an extremist movement — was an act of defiance.
The book goes deeper still. In particular, it geographically widens the ‘Civil Rights Movements’ — a term that is often victim to a monolithic conceptualisation in history curricula up and down this country, and dare I say many scholarly works — beyond the United States and draw patterns and connections across the Atlantic. It explores how the epiphenomena of imperialism, the global movement of peoples between the metropolis and the colonies in an attempt to create ‘brown Englishmen’, worked to fashion ‘race-conscious nationalists’.
By the end of the Second World War, non-whites constituted six per cent of students who matriculated at the University. Oxford was increasingly at the centre of an inadvertent production of radical students. Eric Anthony Abrahams, president of the Union and the man who invited Malcolm X to speak, was part of a wider network of students who led anti-racist protest movements in Oxford and Britain. They challenged the racial politics ingrained in policies of immigration, housing, and employment.
The most remarkable thing about the book is in the telling of these untold stories — of the struggles of non-white students who were refused lodgings because of a ‘colour bar’, of the University tenuously accepting to challenge these forms of discrimination. The Union itself was in uproar over women’s admission in this same period.
Tuck argues that the legacy of Malcolm X’s speech was in undermining the system of University discipline. If there is a legacy to be carried from this book, for me it is in the salient need to internationalise our struggles and our histories. Often dominated by American discourses and figures of anti-racist protest, many of the transatlantic connections evident in resistance movements noted in this book have been obfuscated in service of more sanitised historical narratives. On Monday, to remember Malcolm X’s visit to Oxford, the Union hosted a Pembroke College panel discussion with Tuck; Malcolm X’s nephew Rodnell Collins, director of the Malcolm X House; Oxford historian Selina Todd, author of The People; and Hope Levy-Shepherd, co-chair of the Campaign for Race and Equality. The 50th anniversary can be an opportunity to sit back and admire the oratory of Malcolm X, or it can be an opportunity to remind ourselves and re-enforce a cross-border, transnational, transhistorical struggle — just as the Oxford students in the 1960s did.