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Lehigh professor researches pivotal Malcolm X speech

Saladin Ambar, assistant professor of political science, says Malcolm X's speech at the Oxford Union "presaged Martin Luther King Jr.'s views."

On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X was gunned down by men with ties to the Nation of Islam during a rally in New York City. As the world marks the controversial American civil rights leader’s assassination, a Lehigh University professor is researching a book on an important—but largely overlooked—speech he gave just two months before his death.

In December 1964, when Malcolm X walked in the doors of the venerable Oxford Union in England, the tenor of the nation was much the same as it is today. Islam was a religion unknown to many in Europe and the United States. The nation was deeply divided over race, politics and war.

Malcolm X's participation that day in the Oxford Union debate, "is the lost jewel of the civil rights movement ... the best delivered, most politically astute explanation of his beliefs ... and so powerful it presaged Martin Luther King Jr.'s views," says Saladin Ambar, assistant professor of political science.

Ambar is writing a book, Malcolm X at Oxford Union, to be released in early 2013, in which he examines the role of race, religion, and identity politics in both the United States and United Kingdom.

When Malcolm X gave his speech on Dec. 3, 1964, he was hounded by the foundations of American power and isolated by the Nation of Islam, Ambar says. His speech directly challenged a brand of conservatism alive today in issues of religion, immigration, justice and global conflict, he adds.

At Oxford, black nationalism, American conservatism, and liberal conceptualizations of rights were all on display, as Malcolm X explored new potentialities in American and black political thought, Ambar says. His research uncovers some of the less explored dimensions of this moment of transition in American and British racial politics, even as Malcolm X extended his arguments into the broader context of decolonization in Africa, and the extension of rights to Africans and other marginalized groups throughout the world.

With the 1964 elections in the United States and United Kingdom serving as a background, the book will illuminate the ways in which the rhetoric and theories implicit in the debate at Oxford represented both atavistic and new arguments for reconciling the impulse for racial and civic recognition in modern society, Ambar says.

Story by Sally Gilotti

Posted on Tuesday, February 21, 2012

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