The Jamaican who brought Malcolm X to Oxford University
Anthony Abrahams promised to fill prestigious British Institution with BlacksSunday, January 18, 2015
Last month, the prestigious Oxford Union of the Oxford University, cradle of British political leadership, marked the 50th anniversary of the visit by Malcolm X, the American civil rights leader, on the invitation of Jamaica's Eric Anthony Abrahams, then president of the Union. Abrahams' sister, Hope Abrahams Calogero was present at the speech given by Malcolm X who was assassinated less than three months later. At the anniversary function, she was invited to give reflections on her brother and an event which was regarded as monumental in the context of the times. The Jamaica Observer is pleased to present the full text of her reflections:
Fifty years ago, I sat in the Oxford Union listening to Tony and Malcolm X talk on the subject of extremism , liberty and justice. I'm not the orator that my brother was, and I've had a stroke that affects my speech. However, I could not pass up the opportunity to honour my brother's memory with a few reflections.
I had come two years before this historic moment to a debate at the Oxford Union, at my brother's invitation. It meant a lot to Tony that I be there. He used to say: I was his apple and he was my apple tree. At the time I was overwhelmed by the poshness and whiteness on display.
We had dinner, then listened to the debate, after which Tony leant across and he whispered to me: "I'll be president of the Oxford Union before I leave here and I'll fill the place with blacks."
Such was his intention, right from the start to challenge the racial exclusiveness of the University. This prophecy seemed like a shocking statement at the time, and an impossible dream. I never thought that a black man could become a leader in such an environment. At the same time, however, nothing surprised me about Tony.
His early successes came one after the other. At school in Jamaica, he was captain of many teams, including those of debating, cricket and athletics.
After leaving school in 1958, Tony furthered his debating and leadership skills at the University of the West Indies (UWI), which was at the time a college of the University of London, where he studied politics and economics and chaired many clubs and societies.
His sense of social justice started in his early days as an undergraduate.
In 1960, in Kingston, Tony participated in demonstrations against the import of South African goods. Singled out as having leadership potential, he was the perfect candidate to become a Rhodes scholar. And so it was, that with the scholarship in place, in 1962, Tony went up to Oxford to study jurisprudence.
Abrahams as first Black British gov't minister?
And true to his word, within two years, he had been elected President of the Oxford Union.
Tony had already gotten into trouble with the authorities at Oxford for demonstrating against the South African apartheid regime, in particular on the occasion of a visit by a South African diplomat to the University at the request of the Oxford University Conservative Party.
Tony was gated and initially rusticated for the rest of the year before further student protests forced the proctors to revoke the rustication. This was before his presidency had even started, in the summer of 1964. It was a time when the Establishment in Britain was in support of the South African regime. However, the brand new Labour Government, led by Harold Wilson, had rushed through a ban on the sale of arms to South Africa as part of an election promise weeks before the debate took place.
My brother wrote this letter home shortly before the debate:
OXFORD UNION SOCIETY From the President
My dear Dad and Mum,
Well I have started.
Today order returned to my life as I covered a good deal of work...
I still haven't arranged my own farewell debate as yet.
I am supposed to invite the person whom I most admire. But I can't really think who that is.
...I am gated says the Proctor. Anyhow I have a plan for them...
Hope may have mentioned that I have been doing some campaigning for the Labour party. You never know I may yet be the first black minister of government here. Impossible???
Humility was not one of his strengths....
My brother knew that he was living an important moment in history, and seized the opportunity to make the most of his platform as president of the Union. I am sure that it was this, along with a strong anti-colonial sentiment that influenced his decision to invite Malcolm X for his farewell debate.
It was a stroke of genius and wit, to choose the motto of Barry Goldwater, an arch conservative republican, as the motion for Malcolm X to support: "Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue..."
It was to provide the framework that Malcolm needed to deliver one of the most refined and brilliant of all his speeches.
Fifty years on from that historic event we can finally appreciate its significance in the history of race relations in Britain. It brought into focus the question of race and civil rights in an unprecedented way. It could be said that Tony gave a fresh impetus to the decolonisation of the Union and the University. It broke the hold of the Establishment over race relations in the University and set a precedent for future campaigners.
The real impact that Anthony had at Oxford was the staging of this debate. He was instrumental in something that the British public should be proud of.
That took courage; that took vision. That was my brother.
For those of you who do not know, my brother did not run for ministerial position in England (as he jokingly said in his letter home), but took his skills, talents and education back to Jamaica where he made a huge mark. He became a minister of government there, and used his political and speaking skills to set up, with Beverley Anderson-Manley, a pioneering radio programme (The Breakfast Club) on current affairs.