The following speech by Malcolm, Message to the Grassroots, was delivered on November 10, 1963, at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference. This conference was organized by Reverend Albert Cleage as a response to the Negro Summit Leadership Conference put on by the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR), which Cleage, along with Rev. C. L. Franklin, initially started. The split between Franklin and Cleage reflected the differing visions and tactics between the Negro revolution and the black revolution, a point Malcolm foregrounds in this speech. The Negro revolution, as Malcolm laid out, was nonviolent, seeing the ends as only to “sit down [next] to white folks.” In contrast, the black revolution was uncompromising in tactics and with the end goal not simply being desegregation, but control of land, “the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” As black revolution seemed impending in America in 1963, President Kennedy publicly acknowledged the “Negro revolution” on June 11th and called on black national civil rights leaders to reign in the militancy and self-activity of the black population. Bought off with Kennedy’s money, the Big Six civil rights leadership-which included Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph- along with white progressive leaders, took over the March on Washington of August 28, 1963. As Malcolm described in this speech, “As they took it over, [the march] lost its militancy. It ceased to be angry, it ceased to be hot, it ceased to be uncompromising. Why, it even ceased to be a march.” It was in this context that, Cleage organized the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference on the same weekend and asked Malcolm to headline it with his Message to the Grassroots.
Malcolm was a strong internationalist. As he says, “Be you black, brown, red, or yellow, you pose a serious problem for America.” He saw the black struggle in the US as part of a worldwide black revolution. He knew that we needed unity at home if we were to join that revolution. He demanded that we drop our sectarian debates and work together over what we have in common. As strong of a nationalist as Malcolm was, though, he was not afraid to call out the black middle classes. He would not allow Uncle Toms to co-opt the movement. He saw clearly the class struggle within the black community. Despite this class consciousness of the situation in the US, though, he did not explicitly point out the class tensions in his discussion of Third World movements in Message to the Grassroots. He holds up the Bandung Conference and the Chinese Revolution as glorious examples of people of color fighting white imperialists, when Bandung truly represented the liberal bourgeois rulers of decolonized states and the Chinese Revolution represented state capitalism enforced behind the barrel of a gun. However, it is not clear whether Malcolm did see these tensions, but needed to use examples of people of color power to mobilize folks at home, or whether he did not have a strong enough connection to the grassroots movements in other countries to see the class struggle taking place within them.
45 years since Malcolm gave this speech, America is now headed by a black president. Yet Malcolm’s description that national black leaders “control you, they contain you, they have kept you on the plantation” remains as fresh today as it did 45 years ago. As white corporate America fights its way out of the economic crisis, black America is in severe depression. Nearly 35% of young African American men are unemployed. More and more youth of color join the US military as their only option for additional schooling or employment. In doing so, they uphold white racial supremacy by attacking other communities of color abroad. In the speech, Malcolm called for new ways to fight the system other than relying on national black leadership. With a black man occupying the highest public office in the country, yet conditions for communities of color both inside and outside America drastically worsened, now seems to be an appropriate time to heed Malcolm’s call for alternatives. How do we go beyond the cultural fetishization of Malcolm and reclaim his politics of organization, militancy, and black revolution? How can we ensure that control over our communities does not simply devolve into individual persons of color taking up positions of power?