Watch Malcolm X Debate at Oxford, Quoting Lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1964)

I enjoy replay­ing this vin­tage gem every now and then  — Mal­colm X debat­ing at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty in 1964. In this clas­sic video, you get a good feel for Mal­colm X’s pres­ence and mes­sage, not to men­tion the social issues that were alive dur­ing the day. You’ll hear X’s trade­mark claim that lib­er­ty can be attained by “what­ev­er means nec­es­sary,” includ­ing force, if the gov­ern­ment won’t guar­an­tee it, and that “intel­li­gent­ly direct­ed extrem­ism” will achieve lib­er­ty far more effec­tive­ly than paci­fist strate­gies. (He’s clear­ly allud­ing to Mar­tin Luther King.) You can lis­ten to the speech in its entire­ty here (Real Audio), some­thing that is well worth doing. But I’d also encour­age you to watch the dra­mat­ic clos­ing min­utes and pay some atten­tion to the nice rhetor­i­cal slide, where X takes lines from Shake­speare’s Ham­let and uses them to jus­ti­fy his “by what­ev­er means nec­es­sary” posi­tion. You’d prob­a­bly nev­er expect to see Ham­let get­ting invoked that way, let alone Mal­colm X speak­ing at Oxford. A won­der­ful set of con­trasts.

“I read once, pass­ing­ly, about a man named Shake­speare. I only read about him pass­ing­ly, but I remem­ber one thing he wrote that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Ham­let, I think, it was, who said, ‘To be or not to be.’ He was in doubt about something—whether it was nobler in the mind of man to suf­fer the slings and arrows of out­ra­geous fortune—moderation—or to take up arms against a sea of trou­bles and by oppos­ing end them. And I go for that. If you take up arms, you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who’s in pow­er to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be wait­ing a long time. And in my opin­ion, the young gen­er­a­tion of whites, blacks, browns, what­ev­er else there is, you’re liv­ing at a time of extrem­ism, a time of rev­o­lu­tion, a time when there’s got to be a change. Peo­ple in pow­er have mis­used it, and now there has to be a change and a bet­ter world has to be built, and the only way it’s going to be built—is with extreme meth­ods. And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what col­or you are—as long as you want to change this mis­er­able con­di­tion that exists on this earth.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Shake­speare Cours­es: Primers on the Bard from Oxford, Har­vard, Berke­ley & More

Hear Allen Ginsberg’s Short Free Course on Shakespeare’s Play, The Tem­pest (1980)

James Bald­win Bests William F. Buck­ley in 1965 Debate at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty

Albert Ein­stein Called Racism “A Dis­ease of White Peo­ple” in His Lit­tle-Known Fight for Civ­il Rights

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