My name is Louis Nthenda (a Malawi national, now aged 72 and living in Japan). I am the young black man talking to the girl in the photo behind and to the right of Malcolm X. In 1964, I was a 25 year-old postgraduate student at St Antony’s College, Oxford with a closely cut beard. I would like to share with your readers the background of how Malcolm X came to visit UK and participate as the principal speaker in this debate. I first met Malcolm X in the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi on the evening of 3rd (I think?) September 1964.
I had flown in from Lusaka to catch the old (and the world’s first faster-than-sound plane) VC10 which in those days couldn’t land in Lusaka or Salisbury (now Harare) and flew only from Nairobi. Besides, it couldn’t do the Nairobi-London flight non-stop without refuelling stops. So from Nairobi we stopped for fuel in Khartoum and at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci before finally landing at Heathrow.
I remember at Rome, it was a longer wait and we got off to stretch our legs and visit Duty Free shops. How technology has changed! But here I am digressing. Although I am a Malawi national, I was at the time in exile and working in Zambia. I had resigned my management position at the Anglo-American Nchanga Copper Mine, Zambia, to become Leverhulme Research Scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford. I had to stay overnight in Nairobi. I was sitting at the dinner table by myself among a sea of white faces when I noticed another not-so-white face across the room also sitting by himself.
As Northern Rhodesia (this was before Zambia’s independence) had TV broadcasting, I easily recognised the face as Malcolm X’s. 1964 was the year he visited Mecca and he had been going around the Middle East giving “incendiary” speeches. He had just flown in from Nasser’s Egypt (or was it from the OAU meet in Addis Ababa?) and I had been following his pilgrimage through Newsweek and Northern Rhodesia TV. Anyway, I walked across and asked if I could move to his table with my dinner.
He said yes. We spent the rest of the evening talking about cabbages and kings. I was rather big-headed in those days (by some people’s accounts, I still am); so I told him that the first thing I was going to do when I got to Oxford was become a member of the Oxford Union and my first act was to arrange for the Union to invite him to a debate before the year-end. He warmed to the idea. And that’s what I did.
I became a member within days of my arrival and on the same day of my membership told the Union executive that I could arrange for Malcolm X to come to a Union debate. The Union didn’t have much money for such a big name debater from overseas. So someone rang up the BBC telling them, “there is a young gentleman here who says he can get Malcolm X to a Union debate. Could you sponsor the visit?” The BBC said absolutely; on condition that they televised the debate and that after the debate they could take over and arrange his programme to travel around the UK.
I wrote to him and the rest is history. The debate was between him and Enoch Powell — a brilliant but rebel former Conservative Cabinet Minister who espoused deporting all blacks and Asians from the UK. So the two debaters both took very extreme positions and both out of intellectual and personal conviction.
I thought Malcolm X, of course, won the debate, nem con. He was not just articulate but the house was quite clearly on his side. I checked the records though and they say that despite a prolonged ovation after Malcolm X finished speaking, the motion, which was a quotation from Goldwater’s acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention of that year, was lost 137 to 288. Memory is a strange thing and can be fooled by wishful thinking.
When Malcolm X arrived at Oxford, I was always by his side during the two / three days he was there. I did have letters from him both before and after the visit which were lost in Nigeria, where I went to teach after Oxford; but this story is the Nthenda family lore and now some of the pictures are beginning to surface. I was not aware of this photograph.
I am now going to trace the other two persons in the photo. Your readers and the world owe it to this incident and arrangement that we have surviving images and voice recording of this famous debate.
Thank you for the photo and for letting me share background information of this little episode with your readers.
Dr. Louis Nthenda – Chuo-ku, Tokyo JAPANFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :