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?
5 thoughts on “Message to the Grassroots”
I have so many thoughts on Malcolm…I will limit it to two for now.
A) What is amazing about this speech is that Malcolm is in his most radical of ways is saying that it is the grassroots which is driving the Black Revolution and that everyone else is out to contain it. Malcolm can certainly be put in a tradition of spontaneity and maybe even Anarchism, libertarian-Marxism etc with such an emphasis on the self-activity of the Black people. (Yeah I know I am being very loose here with my categorization of Malcolm, but what would the fun and controversy if I stuck to old boring formulation that he was simply a Black Nationalist.)
What is key is that Malcolm saw the official Civil Rights Leadership/ Organizations as the key obstacles to Black Revolution. I think this is a brilliant insight and this was concretely seen in the expression of new organizations a few years after the march such as the BPP or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. These groups tried to overcome the middle class basis and politics of NAACP, CORE, or SCLC. (This does not mean that working class folks were not in some of the groups.)
“The Negroes were out there in the streets. They were talking about how they were going to march on Washington. Right at that time Birmingham had exploded, and the Negroes in Birminghamﾛremember, they also exploded. They began to stab the crackers in the back and bust them up ‘side their headﾛyes, they did. That’s when Kennedy sent in the troops, down in Birmingham. After that, Kennedy got on the television and said “this is a moral issue.” That’s when he said he was going to put out a civil-rights bill. And when he mentioned civil-rights bill and the Southern crackers started talking about how they were going to boycott or filibuster it, then the Negroes started talkingﾛabout what? That they were going to march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House, march on the Congress, and tie it up, bring it to a halt, not let the government proceed. They even said they were going out to the airport and lay down on the runway and not let any airplanes land. I’m telling you what they said. That was revolution. That was revolution. That was the black revolution.
It was the grass roots out there in the street. It scared the white man to death, scared the white power structure in Washington, D.C., to death; I was there.”
B) I agree with the post that Malcolm was way off about Bandung. Aijaz Ahmed has talked about this brilliantly in the chapter “Three World Theory” in In Theory.
Here are some problems of the picture Malcolm paints of the Bandung Conference:
-SEATO and the Baghdad Pact which followed shortly after the conference involved Pakistan, Iraq, the United States, Turkey, and others destroys the idea of a unified third world or people of color nations.
-India and China had real border disputes leading to war in 1962.
-Was the Bandung the internationalism and solidarity of the grassroots crossing national boundaries or was it nation-states opportunistically making pacts/ attempting alliances for geo-political reasons? Ahmed documents how Nehru tried to establish a relationship with the United States.
-Ahmed also documents that “the Indian government accepted both the key security Council Resolutions, of 25 and 27 June 1950, which paved the way for the thin veiling of the US invasion as a United Nations force” into Korea (299).
There is more that Ahmed goes into, but I am not gonna do a full review of his chapter right now ☺
In summary I think Bandung represented a shallow attempt at the newly independent bourgeoisies to provide an alternative to Super Power politics. Bandung was the expression of politics between nation-states where the grassroots was subordinated to the modernizing needs of the nation, and solidarity was given an anti-colonial, people of color gloss, but was in reality more opportunistically dealt with based on geo-political needs of the given nation state. That countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Iran, Egypt, or Pakistan fell most decisively in one camp or the other reflected the improbability of nation states in that period charting an independent path based on a people of color politics resting on a nation-state foundation.
While situating Malcolm as a black nationalist is overplayed, I think it’s important to avoid conflating him as a libertarian-Marxist. I tend to think that Malcolm’s blindspots on black revolutions of the third world- from Bandung to China- suggests that he never looked at the American crisis as something more than a race problem- i.e. the problem of white supremacy. In this and other speeches, he gets at black control over businesses, but to my knowledge, he doesn’t get at worker control over production, end with managers, etc. I speculate this is why, after he split from the NOI, Malcolm also declined the invitation from Grace Lee Boggs to start up a new black revolutionary organization.
However, Malcolm’s brutal honesty on what it would take to win- his separation from the non-violent, ‘We Shall Overcome’ choir tactics of MLK and the other Negro revolutionaries- is something needed for today, given the dearth of alternatives to the electoral system but the increasing recognition of the bankruptcy of the electoral system.
I think as organizers, we need to be honest about Malcolm’s shortcomings, but at the same time, revive his spirit of uncompromising militancy, take the best of his Afro-Asian internationalism but not short-change it to supporting third world elites (i.e. supporting the intifada and not the PA), and translate these points into concrete organizations and structures that actually tackle the problems (i.e. heeding his call to create an alternative to the electoral system).
I agree we need to look at Malcolm’s shortcomings, especially in the Nation for the NOI holds old Garveyite Black Capitalist ideologies. This even though Malcolm called out Black middle class leaders and did see class struggle at work. But his time after the NOI in the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) was really about supporting progressive 3rd World Nationalism and orientation towards the Bandungism of airing grievances as an independent bloc from the U.S. or Soviet Union to the UN. These methods, while supportive of national liberation struggles among POC, viewed it from above via state power and UNism through rallying support from the grassroots. So in some ways I feel Malcolm had a sharper edge calling out middle class leaders and hinting at the class struggle during his time in the NOI over the OAAU days. One might think it the other way around, but this shows perhaps some of the contradictions of Malcolm and his politics, even though so much good comes out that we need to reclaim in our struggle today against a growing rainbow coalition of political and corporate leadership, where working folks of all backgrounds, but especially POC, continue to get the short end of the stick.
This reminds me of an anecdote I read recently about the Young Lords in Chicago and the Young Patriots forming a sort of “Rainbow Coalition from below” when they came together. This coalition came together in 1969 when Fred Hampton, a key Panther leader in Chicago though only 21 at the time, began talking to the Black Stone Rangers, then the country’s largest street gang, about a coalition between them and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang in Chicago.
The Rangers weren’t too keen on revolution, but the Young Lords were, and so were the Young Patriots, a gang of white Appalachian youth that wore Confederate flags as a repudiation of the middle class whites that made fun of their poor, country heritage when these kids would move to the city with their families. The irony is that the Panthers and Young Lords got along with the Patriots, in spite of the Confederate flags, often far more than with the more middle class whites in SDS because they shared a working class/poor cultural heritage.
And that is what is significant about this story for our purposes – a working class “rainbow coalition” from below that sees itself as revolutionary, with members of each group conscious of the “river of blood,” so to speak, that separates them from middle class members of their own racial or ethnic groups.
The essay I read was Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar’s “Rainbow Radicalism” in Peniel Joseph’s “The Black Power Movement.” Pages 215-228 cover this incident and more.
Yo Jamusa and BYC,
I wanted to chime in real quick before I got decked by others. I agree with both your points…
Guess the old marbles in the jar are getting loose these days 🙂