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The night Malcolm X spoke at the Oxford Union

OXFORD TRIP: Malcolm X in the famous university town

AS STEPHEN Tuck points out in the epilogue to this lucidly written and well-researched book The Night Malcolm X Spoke At The Oxford Union, the visit in 1964 has largely been forgotten about, both in Oxford and outside of it.

Institutional memory at the university is, of course, rather short, but it is still somewhat surprising that there exists such a blind spot regarding the visit of a figure whose reputation preceded him in 1964, and continues to divide opinion today.

Professor Tuck is to be thanked for bringing this important historical moment back to light and, in situating it in its wider context, contributing significantly to our understanding of the transatlantic civil rights movement and Oxford’s particular place within it.

Tuck traces Malcolm X and his ideas, both racial and religious, from his days as the petty criminal Malcolm Little in New York and Boston, to those as the global civil rights activist and pan-Africanist Malcolm X.

If this much at least is a familiar tale, Tuck’s synthesis of Malcolm X’s life story into such a concise, clear account is masterful; I was left only to regret that such a brief but comprehensive version had been lacking when I was studying these issues.

The book’s greatest achievement in my eyes, however, is its interweaving of this familiar life story with broader narratives which encompass race relations in Oxford, decolonisation, and the worldwide struggle for racial equality.

In doing so, Tuck shows how such a local event as the debate at the Oxford Union had a global dimension, one with implications not only for Malcolm X’s personal story but also for a wider story of civil rights activism.

To put it another way, the debate, wonderfully brought to life in the fourth chapter, is shown to have existed both inside and outside of the ‘Oxford bubble’, simultaneously leaving behind an important legacy in the university and forming part of a wider set of transatlantic exchanges. A visit which at first glance appears so unlikely was, in fact, perfectly explicable.

The book will be of use to the academic community, but thanks to its accessible style will also undoubtedly appeal to a popular audience. With this in mind, I see its importance as twofold.

Firstly, it addresses the concerning gap in British national memory which sees the civil rights struggle as a solely American matter, an attitude which has seen figures like Paul Stephenson and Darcus Howe almost entirely written out of the secondary school curriculum in favour of a focus on the United States.

Secondly, it teases out the parallels between the experiences of BME students at Oxford in 1964 and 2014; at a time when race is becoming an increasingly prominent topic of discussion in the student body (certainly more so than when I first arrived in Oxford), such comparisons are both interesting and immensely valuable.

More than anything, however, the book is a pleasure to read and should prove enjoyable for historians and non-historians alike: it comes highly recommended for no more complicated reason than this.

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