Malcolm X in the UK: "When he stood in front of the crowd it was as if an electric shock had touched them"

Historian and teacher Mark Hutchinson reveals how Yorkshire reacted to civil rights activist Malcolm X during a visit just two months before his assassination

"Poor Malcolm, wearing size 15 black shoes with holes in the bottom, disentangled himself from the Volkswagen Beetle."

That is how civil rights activist Malcolm X first stepped onto Sheffield ground on December 3, 1964, according to a writer in the Islamic Review. He had been a passenger in the vehicle as it travelled across Snake Pass from Manchester University, the venue of the second of three talks given to halls of students – the first being at the Oxford Union, over a punishing schedule of four days. The author of the Islamic Banner article continues: "He was so tall he had to fold his legs all the way to Sheffield."

What a way to cross the Pennines by car particularly at the wintry end of the year. Yet here he stood outside a Nether Edge house – a pleasant suburb of Sheffield, acknowledged as America’s most radical and divisive commentator on racial affairs.He had been invited by the Federation of Islamic Society of Students (FOISS) and was scheduled to speak the next day at Graves Hall, University of Sheffield University Students’ Union.Malcolm was chaperoned by Ghavasuddin Siddiqui, Secretary of the Islamic Circle branch of FOISS. The meeting was the largest organised by the Student Union body. Malcolm was following a tradition of American speakers to the city, stretching back from Paul Robeson and Ida B. Wells to the likes of Frederick Douglass and starting with Olaudah Equiano.

Initial local newspaper accounts of the visit suggested Malcom X received a hostile reaction of hissing from the students, due to what the paper stated was the inflammatory nature of his speech – which was not true. Following a strongly-worded written riposte from the student body, later editions of the local press coverage printed that the talk given by Malcolm X had actually been well received by those present. This was a rare press victory for a man who had become media-imprisoned by those who saw him as a threat especially following his comment ‘chickens coming home to roost’ in response to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. The different perspectives portrayed him as the angriest man in America, a traitor, revolutionary. What was more surprising is where these comments came from. He was under surveillance by the FBI - no lover of a man who they thought wanted to poison the minds of young Americans.

Conservative (often Christian) Blacks who were appalled at his conversion to Islam (let alone prior criminal prison record) and perhaps surprisingly from the very inner circle of the Nation of Islam (NOI) its leader Elijah Muhammad. The latter, his mentor and former closest colleague, who he had turned against - believing Muhammad was jealous of him and morally unfit for leadership especially of the Black community. The NOI were also unhappy with Malcom X’s increasing willingness from 1963 onward to reach out to the notion of desegregation. He was talking with a broad range of influential groups, as diverse as the American Nazi Party and Martin Luther King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) – defacto moderate Civil Rights group. There was a real threat that any of these or other extreme groups such as the Ku Klux Klan wanted to kill him – culturally, reputational and apart from SCLC – to just plain murder him. In the last months of his life, his critics - especially those within NOI - let him know they were just one step away from doing any or all of the following methods of destruction to him and his family. So, The Sheffield Students’ Union stating on December 8 that Malcolm X was the first iIn the history of the Union who has received a standing ovation from 700 students’ may well have brought a wry smile to this American. Why did they clap in his favour is a question I want to return and examine in this piece?“The Afro-American Negroes have a problem which goes far beyond religion. When you take away a man’s freedom, you take away his life. They have castrated us morally, economically and spiritually – we were made to hate ourselves, the pigment of our skin, the shape of our nose and lips and the texture of our hair."We were taught to hate by the greatest hate teacher of them all – Uncle Sam."No man should have the right to dictate freedom to another. Women and children are having their clothes torn off their backs by high pressure hoses, men are having their skulls crushed by rubber truncheons. We are not fighting for civil rights; we are fighting for human rights. To get it I would use any means necessary, any time."I did not spell out terrorism – but I did not rule it out. If a man is not willing to die for his freedom, he does not deserve to be free.”Sometime after the visit, Dr. Siddiqui remembered that Malcolm X was asked many questions, especially by American students at the university. Other questions came from more pointed sources. For instance, The (Sheffield) Star reported that the right-wing economist Roger Neal, who had written a highly racialized article against Black immigrants to Britain at the time of the Smethwick by election, openly speculated amongst the Sheffield audience that he and Malcolm had much in common. Malcolm X did not agree and responded by saying: “I believe in the brotherhood of the human race and I don’t care to know anybody who is not prepared to be my brother... Education rather than legislation will solve the problem... I am infavour of using any means necessary to obtain fundamental rights.”In her article ‘Malcolm X in Manchester and Sheffield’ Marika Sherwood wrote that after the speech Malcolm went to have dinner at the home of a member of FIOSS. An eyewitness present described what was served to him: “... macaroni and mince-meat, a meal which Malcolm ate for the first time and much enjoyed.”After his visit, a local paper stated prior to Malcolm X’s arrival in the city, university officials had been worried there might be ‘disturbances’ on the question of racialism. In the same 1965 post-visit article, Siddiqui summed up why those fears were nullified: "Before his visit everyone thought he was a violent, militant, aggressive man... He was not a racialist. He stood for Islam because Islam stands for human equality."

So is this why the undergraduates applauded him?

I would argue it is based on not just what he said but also how he conveyed perhaps the central core message of his talk. I believe he emphasised the desire for the equality of diversity was restricted by practices of discrimination whilst surrounded by notions of ‘freedom’. He wanted to break free from the constraints of NOI, cornered by American governmental institutions as just only interested in a racialized view of Civil Rights and the methodology of violence. This is not to state he would now advocate towards the liberalism of non-violent action. Malcolm wanted to assert - and ‘by any means’ - that he would now pursue the idea of human rights. Did this involve an emerging political approach via conversations with countries in Africa, Asia and the non-aligned world that matched his journeys to many of these countries between 1963 – 1965? He seemed still to be processing a new political path using what these experiences were teaching him when Malcolm was assassinated in February 1965. Yet he was at the forefront of cultural and philosophical thinking about how to respond to racism in society, whilst on his world-wide journey of soul-searching. In the America of the mid-1960s, if Motown was the voice of Young America – as a melting-pot of acceptability for both black and white, it could be argued that Malcolm X was the articulation of an increasingly angry and aggrieved isolated brother or sister who wanted questions answered and action now, with no dreamy tambourine playing or ‘love thy neighbour’ placard-waving ‘turn-the-other-cheek protestor, in sight.A report in the Islamic Banner commented about his trip to Manchester, which seems to echo what eyewitnesses felt about Malcom X’s subsequent visit to Sheffield, the day after: "When he stood in front of the crowd it was as if an electric shock had touched them. All were stunningly silent. He made people laugh, he made them cry and he made them think rationally."He then travelled to the Midland Railway Station and departed to King Cross London with no sleep from the previous 48 hours of hectic travel to Manchester and then on to Sheffield. Two months later, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem, New York.