Revisiting Malcolm X’s Address at the 1964 Oxford Union Debate
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
By Kwaku Aurelien
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice
is no virtue.”
The above phrase was spoken by Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention, and became the subject of argument at the Oxford Union Debate later that year. Speaking before the Oxford Union on the side of the affirmative fifty-six years ago today on December 3rd, 1964, human rights activist Malcolm X very deftly connected "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" with Black liberation struggles worldwide and with his own philosophy of acquiring respect and recognition of Black people as human beings by any means necessary. His address will forever stand out as one of the greatest and most important speeches of the Civil Rights Movement and the worldwide revolutionary period of the 1960s. Within it are a number of key points that can and must be applied to revolutionary politics today.
“In the past when the oppressor had one stick and the oppressed used that same stick, today the oppressed are sort of shaking the shackles and getting yardsticks of their own, so when they say extremism they don’t mean what you do, and when you say extremism you don’t mean what they do. There are entirely two different meanings. And when this is understood I think you can better understand why those who are using methods of extremism are being driven to them.”
– Malcolm X
This idea of yardsticks and the oppressor and oppressed classes each having their own by which extremism is measured is extremely pertinent to the current social and political climate in the United States. "Defund the police" as a slogan has become heavily contentious amongst members of both the Republican and Democratic parties, who make up the United States' ruling class. In the eyes of major U.S. politicians such as South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn and former President Barack Obama, the very mention of defunding the police is extreme. But it is not the slogan itself that is the problem; rather, it is the Movement for Black Lives and its demand for fundamental change that is antithetical to the interests of both major parties' establishments. And those who would argue that the slogan alienates moderate support for the movement ignore a critical point: that the goal of liberatory social movements is to pursue a clear and well-defined objective, no matter how unpopular said objective might be at first. "Defund the police" is not an illusive phrase unlike "Abolish chokeholds" or "Abolish no-knock warrants," both of which fall under the umbrella of "Defund the police" anyway and would fail to make a dent in extrajudicial murders of Black people if they were implemented on their own. Beyond the two major parties, the notion of defunding the police is extreme to the majority of Americans due to the fact that they attribute police violence to individual loose-cannon officers rather than to policing itself. Extreme to revolutionaries and practitioners of the Black Radical Tradition, however, is the fact that U.S. police department budgets, some of them dwarfing the budgets of Third World nations' militaries, come at the cost of essential social services.
At the 1:38:57 mark of the following video, Yusuf Abdur-Qadir, director of the central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), points out how the vast majority of Syracuse police officers live outside of the city, meaning that money is being funneled out of a community with underfunded schools and into communities with great schools. This should very well be considered extremism against Black communities and communities of color, as should prisoners and inmates who are themselves scantly protected from COVID-19 being paid a measly $2 an hour to move bodies of COVID victims.
Additionally, the policing question perfectly demonstrates how moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue, because the NYPD has been known to fly officers to remote countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, and Pakistan, and close-by areas like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in order that they can conduct "special interrogations." For years, they monitored mosques, Muslim student organizations, and Muslim restaurants in New York City, something which even members of the FBI could not abide. Both are instances of extremism against sects of people, and the former begs the question of how and why a police department's reach can extend out of the country in which they are based. If this was common knowledge, "defund the police" might even be seen as being the moderate position, because the general public would come to the incontrovertible conclusion that the NYPD has vastly overstepped its jurisdiction and is therefore unworthy of its nearly $11 billion budget. In a city where more than half of its officers don't even live there, that is money that could be going into schools, the Department of Health, the NYC Department of Homeless Services, and the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development, among other things.
Malcolm X understood perhaps better than any activist during his time how the United States and the Western world at large manipulated mainstream media and the press to make the general public love who they wanted them to love and hate who they wanted them to hate. He summarized that idea in his address as such:
“When the people who are in power want to, again, create an image to justify something that’s bad, they use the press. And they’ll use the press to create a humanitarian image, for a devil, or a devil image for a humanitarian. They’ll take a person who's a victim of the crime, and make it appear he’s the criminal, and they’ll take the criminal and make it appear that he’s the victim of the crime.”
A good example of this dynamic playing out today is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or more accurately, Israel's policy of Manifest Destiny into the Occupied Territories. In the United Kingdom recently, former Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn was suspended amidst accusations of anti-Semitism stemming from his longstanding views regarding Israel's aggression in the Middle East, and comments legitimizing Hamas as “an organization dedicated to the good of the Palestinian people.” Corbyn has since been reinstated, but the halfhearted response to his suspension by the Labour Party under new Leader Keir Starmer and the international left will only serve to embolden the right. Moreover, Corbyn's name is now sullied. A simple Google search of "Jeremy Corbyn Israel" will yield a laundry list of articles casting aspersions on his name.
The fact of the matter is that Corbyn's statements condemning Israel's passage of the racialist nation-state law in 2018 and Israeli aggression in Gaza are valid statements that shed light on the type of extremism Malcolm X disapproved of. In his address, Malcolm X cited the Congo, which had been thrown into a state of unrest lasting to this day after the assassination of its democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, and its subsequent takeover by Moïse Tshombe and his South African mercenaries contracted to kill off opposition to Tshombe's cause. X stated that this was extremism that had not been labeled as such because it was "endorsed by the West, financed by America, [and] made respectable by America." Malcolm X made it a point to clarify his stance to make it very clear to his audience that this was not the type of extremism he supported:
"Because it’s not extremism in defense of liberty, and if it is extremism in defense of liberty as this type just pointed out, it is extremism in defense of liberty for the wrong type of people. I am not advocating that kind of extremism, that’s cold-blooded murder."
X supported the Simba rebels fighting in Stanleyville against the Western-backed illegitimate Congolese government. When a man in the crowd asked him about his thoughts on the execution of American and European missionaries by the Simbas, X responded by equating it to America's dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – an act of war. He went on to say that the rebels at Stanleyville were defending their country against invaders. The Stanleyville rebels were in many ways akin to Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) today. Both have been designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and European Union, but the vast majority of the world do not designate them as such; a U.S. resolution to condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization was defeated in the United Nations General Assembly in 2018. Whatever terrorist tendencies they do have are due to the simple fact that terror incites more terror. Just as it was uncontroversial for Malcolm X to highlight how the murder of Patrice Lumumba was backed by the West, a fact known throughout the entire world in 1964, It should not be controversial or "anti-Semitic" to say that Operation Cast Lead, conducted on December 27, 2008 by the Israel Defense Forces, was an act of extremism against the 1,400 Palestinians – most being civilians – killed. It should not be controversial or "anti-Semitic" to say that the IDF's 2014 shelling of residential buildings during Operation Protective Edge and its shelling of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) facilities providing shelter for Palestinians in Gaza – the former displacing some 100,000 Palestinians and the latter killing 44 civilians and 10 U.N. personnel – is extremism against Palestinians. But like with the Congo in the 1960s, this extremism is endorsed by the West, financed by America, and made respectable by America. And in America, criticism of Israel or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) by politicians is nigh-impossible.
American and Pan-European extremism is felt all throughout the nonwhite world. One of the things that is important to note from the End SARS movement in Nigeria is the fact that 150 Nigerian Air Force Special Forces were trained by Israeli and American military officers. The SARS police unit was provided with training and equipment by the British. Malcolm X noted how in the Congo, Tshombe's pilots being both trained by the United States and anti-Communist lent an air of respectability to them they otherwise would not have had. Ergo, because they were "anti-Communist" and "anti-Castro," their actions then on were considered justifiable in the eyes of the American public, the vast majority of whom made no effort to look further into their government's dealings in the Congo. Today we are witnessing the same dynamic with the Nigerian Armed Forces. This applies even to police in America; the respectability we've lent them makes it very difficult for most people to isolate the causes of the problem. They overlook the causes to go straight to the problem, thinking it lies with a few officers who must be expunged so as to save the rest, without so much as asking how these bad cops can be expunged to begin with.
Perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today is the Yemeni Civil War; many, if not most Americans are aware of it. However, what many, if not most Americans are not aware of is the fact that their government had its hands all over what is going on presently. U.S. weapons manufacturers have generated billions of dollars in arms sales to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), bolstering the American economy at the expense of the Yemenis who have been under siege by the KSA since 2015 (the UAE has withdrawn from Yemen as of July 2019). The United Kingdom is a guilty party in all of this as well, not only selling the KSA arms but also covertly dispatching troop deployments to the region in defense of Saudi oil fields all of six days ago. The KSA's belligerence is a response to the Houthi armed movement having succeeded in ousting the Saudi-backed Yemeni authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, and subsequently wrestling control of the strategic governorate of Saada away from Saleh's successor Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthis pursued the type of extremism Malcolm X endorsed – extremism in the defense of liberty. However, as they were not the "type," as Malcolm X put it, of people supposed to make this determination for themselves, they have been met with violent reprisals from opposing forces in collaboration with the West. In 2020, Yemen has reached its nadir, quadruple-trapped by war, famine, cholera, and COVID-19.
What we are doing here and what Malcolm X was doing in 1964 is distinguishing between left-wing extremism and right-wing extremism. Left-wing extremism, i.e., the Black Lives Matter movement, police and prison abolition movements, End SARS, the Houthi movement in Yemen, and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement in Palestine, are honest attempts by oppressed people at overthrowing the shackles of those who oppress them by any means necessary. In South Africa, Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF) call for land redistribution are considered extreme by many, if not most South African Whites. However, what it really represents is an honest attempt to solve the land question now before Black South Africans become restless with owning just 28% of the nation's private farmland despite making up 76% of the population. If something isn't done soon, there will be violent explosions in South Africa. Right-wing extremism, on the other hand, is extremism in the name of profit, power, land acquisition, surveillance and genocide. It is represented in the form of carceral systems, police repression and extrajudicial killings of citizens, predominantly racialized citizens, and a military industrial complex which requires wars to open new markets. These differing forms of extremism are antithetical to one another and therefore must always clash. If the tumultuous year that has been 2020 indicates anything, it is that the clash has only just become visible to the public eye.
"I don’t believe in any form of unjustified extremism. But I believe that when a man is exercising extremism, a human being is exercising extremism, in defense of liberty for human beings, it’s no vice. And when one is moderate in the pursuit of justice for human beings, I say he’s a sinner."
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About the Author:
Kwaku Aurelien is a junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in English with the intention of going into law school and subsequently becoming a practicing environmental lawyer fighting on behalf of oppressed and marginalized peoples in the United States and throughout the world. To this end, he is often reading and watching the news to heighten his awareness. He seeks the delicate balance between human rights activism and law. It is a hard path, but he has the utmost confidence he can pull it off. Be sure to follow Kwaku on his social media pages:
Twitter - @The_Earthquake3
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