American baptist minister Al Sharpton pulled out of a debate at the Union on Friday night, instead preferring to give a speech before the debate began. Originally scheduled to lead the proposition on the motion “This house believes the United States is institutionally racist,” the Reverend withdrew on short notice from participating in the main debate.

Mr Sharpton had previously been expected to join Black Panther leader Aaron Dixon and liberal blogger Mychal Denzel Smith in supporting the motion, against opposition from Fox News contributor David Webb, conservative commentator Joe Hicks and BBC radio host Charlie Wolf.

A statement on the Oxford Union website read, “Instead of the Emergency Debate prior to the US Racism Debate this evening, there will be an individual address by Rev Al Sharpton as a precursor to the main Debate.”

No further explanation was given and many attendees of the debate were disappointed not to hear Mr Sharpton participate in the debate itself. Instead of debating, Mr Sharpton delivered a wide ranging 45 minute talk at about 7pm.

Other participants in the debate were quick to condemn Mr Sharpton’s

David Webb, billed as a “conservative commentator and contributor to Fox News” by the Union, attacked the MSNBC host. 

Speaking to the US news network Breitbart, Webb stated, “He [Sharpton] doesn’t want to be exposed for what he really is – a shakedown artist and racial coward. After years of conning people into giving him money by fanning the flames of racism, he’s just too afraid to have a civil, fact-based conversation about the issues of race in America.”

Al Sharpton is no stranger to controversy in the US. An informal adviser to both President Obama and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, his comments on the Ferguson shooting provoked criticism from the American Right.

In the debate itself, Webb condemned Sharpton as a “coward” for not speaking and the other opposition speakers expressed indignation for not subjecting his views to scrutiny. Outside the debate Webb stated, “It would be wrong to allow Sharpton to get away with just his usual thin, inflammatory rhetoric when this is supposed to be a substantive discussion.”

Student reaction to Sharpton’s decision to avoid the debate was mixed. Ben Evans, a first year PPEist at Univ said, “Given the weakness of the opposition, he wasn’t needed”.

First year historian Jack Edwards commented, ‘‘I was a bit disappointed not
to see him in head-to-head debate. However, his talk was very good and gave us a greater opportunity to question him directly. He was very good but it would have been better if he had spoken and debated.’’

There was some unhappiness from Union officials at Sharpton’s decision. A Union insider told Cherwell, ‘‘Listening to the debate, it became clear that the quality of the speakers wasn’t quite up to Union standard.’’

The Union could not be reached for comment.