Malcom X and the UK
Whilst the world’s attention was turned to the civil rights protests and violence in Birmingham, Alabama, Malcolm X visited a town just outside of Birmingham, England. In 1964, Smethwick was engulfed in electoral tensions, as the local Conservative Association was pressured to buy up homes in white neighbourhoods to ensure only white families moved in to them. Electoral slogans often drew upon these racial divides, with one claiming that ‘if you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour’. It was this appalling display of racial hostility that prompted Malcolm X to re-visit the UK in 1965. He claimed that ethnic minorities in Smethwick were being treated in a way akin to the Jewish treatment under Hitler, and when asked what should be done about the situation, he said that ‘’I would not wait for the fascist elements in Smethwick to erect gas ovens.’
Malcolm X’s second visit to the UK followed his previous invitation to speak at many British universities on racism, with his speech at the Oxford Union in 1964 entitled “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. This speech, which was so widely anticipated it was broadcast by the BBC, has often been seen as a sign of the change in Malcolm X’s philosophy over racial integration. Previously a supporter of Black Nationalism and the separation of whites and blacks, in his speech to the Oxford Union, he said that “We are not human beings unless we band together and do whatever, however, whenever is necessary to see that our lives and property are protected, and I doubt that any person here would refuse to do the same thing were he in the same position, or should I say, condition.”
However, the fact that Malcolm X accepted the invitation from the Oxford Union to make his fated appearance demonstrates the strength of the civil rights struggle already under-way at the university. The Oxford Union’s president Eric Abrahams and its treasurer Tariq Ali were both outspoken campaigners on pan-Africanism and anti-apartheid issues, meaning that the university was fast becoming known for its political activism!
Despite the support for the ‘No Negros for Neighbours’ campaign in Smethwick’s 1964 election, the visit of Malcolm X helped put a stop to the discriminatory housing practices. Sandwell Council has since taken strong measures to combat racism, with an equal opportunities recruitment policy, and a phone line set up specifically for reporting racist attacks. Whilst these measures did not totally eradicate all signs of racial tensions, to mark the anniversary of his death, a blue plaque was erected in Smethwick’s Marshall Street as a reminder of the racial and ethnic unity Malcolm X’s visit inspired.
Chris Arnot “Malcolm X in the Black Country: Chris Arnot revisits Smethwick, where the Black Power leader claimed coloured people were being treated ‘like the Jews under Hitler” from the Independent, Wednesday 3rd March, 1993 – http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/malcolm-x-in-the-black-country-chris-arnot-revisits-smethwick-where-the-black-power-leader-claimed-coloured-people-were-being-treated-like-the-jews-under-hitler-1495312.html
Sitala Peek “Smethwick Malcolm X plaque ‘timely reminder’ post riots” BBC News 21st February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-17112209
Michael Higgs “Malcolm X’s Visit to Britain’ Institute of Race Relations Blog, February 27th 2014 – http://www.irr.org.uk/news/malcolm-x-oxford-union/
YouTube Video “Hon. Malcolm X: Oxford Union Debate”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3H2eul-50k