notes on reading
Message to the Grassroots
40 years later: 1963 - 2003

This speech is a central text in the collected work of Malcolm X.  It can be read on at least four levels: psychological, historical, sociological and philosophical:

  1. Political culture: Malcolm X begins the talk by establishing political culture as the basis for Black identity and makes an argument for Black unity based on racist political violence;

  2. Historical: Malcolm X grounds his argument in a review of seven cases of revolutionary change from 1776 to 1959, almost 200 years.  He focuses on political economy (land) and revolutionary strategy (bloodshed);

  3. Sociological: Malcolm X argues that the difference between the house slave and the field slave were being repeated in the current situation between the civil rights leaders and the militant masses of people (class struggle);

  4. Philosophical: The logic of this argument is based on what actually happened in history (materialism) as a function of a struggles of opposites, e.g., land owners vs. the landless (dialectics).

We have to review this material and think for ourselves about these matters as Malcolm X would have encouraged us to do.  The main thing is that we have what he said, and now we have to make sense of it based on our understanding 40 years after Malcolm X gave this speech.

The first task is to think about the differences between 1963 and 2003.  In 1960 the US Census reports 18.9 million African Americans in the US making up 10.6% of the total population.  By 2000 there were 30.0 million making up 12.1% of the total population.  The numbers are going up but the situation is getting worse.  In 1960 Kennedy won the presidency by Chicago Mayor Daley (and fellow Irish Catholic) stealing the election for him in Illinois and moving a “progressive” agenda into the White House.  On the other hand, in 2000 Jeb Bush stole the election in Florida for his brother, and moved the most conservative and militaristic administration ever.  What is remarkable is that both Kennedy and Bush advanced the same basic policy of US corporate and military hegemony, one with a smiling face of an imperialist statesman suggesting he might belong with the icons of WWII (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin),  and one with a silly school boy tough guy front cloaked in the rhetorical piety of bible belt fundamentalism suggesting the return of the Know-nothings...

Kennedy is responsible for US crimes all over the world especially Vietnam and Cuba, while Bush is currently known for his crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In 1963 Malcolm X said he saw a nightmare not a dream.  In his day you could get fired on first shift and be hired in another plant by third shift.  Today, people who lose a good job will likely never be rehired into such a job but will be faced with a pay cut and virtually no job security.  In other words when we read Malcolm X we find that his words are even more true today than when he was alive.  It is important to read his work from the 1960’s and make sure we render it as profound as it was then, and is even more so today.  Each of the four levels of interpretation of this speech is valuable and an essential aspect to placing Malcolm X among the great thinkers of the last half of the 20th century.

Black identity shaped in politics culture
The first seven paragraphs speak to this issue.  The argument begins by noting that there are many differences in the Black community but none is more important than the common experience of being exploited and oppressed by white racist oppression.  He uses the phrase “catching hell” to represent racist oppression, and states that differences based on religion, political party affiliation, and fraternal group membership do not explain why we catch hell.  The main explanation is that there is a racist pattern and all Black people catch hell together.  Those who catch hell are contrasted with those that came over on the Mayflower.  This is the polarity he creates in his argument - the Pilgrims versus those that catch hell by their hand.

He then takes us to an international example,  an example he regards as a road map suggesting what African Americans should do.  He discusses the Bandung Conference in 1955 when 29 countries came together to plot a common strategy for third world countries.  His argument is that they had to deal with a fundamental contradiction  that continues to be with us today, the former colonies vs. the colonial powers, now the countries dominating global capitalism and those neo-colonies that are being subordinated in this new system.

He concludes by indicating that Black people in the US are similar to the countries that met in 1955.  Rev Adam Clayton Powell was at the conference representing the anti-communist interests of the USA, while Richard Wright was there writing his analysis as an independent Black left critic.  Wright subsequently published a book on Bandung called the Color Curtain (1956).

In sum, Malcolm X argues that it is the political culture of violence that has forced Black people into a common identity, a survival mode of uniting against a common enemy.  Moreover, he argues that just as anti-colonial unity was the precondition for the former colonies to shake off colonial rule, so a comparable unity would be necessary for Black people in the US to get free from this form of exploitation and oppression.

Malcolm X wants to make a clear distinction between the Negro and the Black revolution.  He begins by indicating that the two fundamental issues are what it is for and how it is done.  He says it is for “land,” and it is done through “bloodshed.”  What did he mean by these simple answers to very complex questions? 

Land is the physical environment for living, and that requires a social organization of people for all kinds of survival and reproduction.  In every case what comes out of the land has been the basis for the economy, the production of food clothing and shelter.  Our reading can be full and accurate only when we understand that he uses the word “land” to represent political economy, the basis for a people survival.  

There are four ways this happens:

    1.      land as agriculture for domestic consumption, to grow the home market
    2.      land as production resource for export to world markets for hard foreign exchange
    3.      land as space for national unity
    4.      land as place for a state, either a national state or a multinational state

Each way is a test for a revolution:

    1.      Can the revolution feed its people and provide for a high standard of living?
    2.      Can the revolution compete in the world market and maintain good trade relations?
    3.      Can the revolution end national oppression?
    4.      Can the revolution embrace the politics of democracy and social justice?

Bloodshed is the way Malcolm X refers to armed struggle in this speech.  Armed struggle is a strategic weapon in any mass movement to seize political power for the purpose of taking control of a country to redistribute the wealth for the sustainable guarantee to a decent life for all the people and not simply a ruling class of elites.  There are other strategic tools that are necessary preconditions to any successful armed struggle:

  1. The development of a ideological and political line that defines friends and enemies, problems and solutions, a vision and specific goals;

  2. The creation of an organization that can serve as a general staff of workers to keep the mass struggles coordinated and always combining action with study of the ideological and political line;

  3. The mobilization of mass based battle fronts in which people fight for reforms to improve their day to day lives, while not losing sight of the ultimate goal of making a total revolution.

The degree to which each of the following leads to a total moral denunciation of the status quo, the government and the dominant corporations, and the extent to which there is a clear line that is backed by an effective revolutionary organization, with masses in action with little hope for reform, being met by violent repression, then armed struggle becomes a necessary and viable alternative.

Malcolm X talks about and therefore calls for a study of the following revolutionary experiences:

    1.      American Revolution 1776 - capitalism

    2.      French Revolution 1789 - capitalism

    3.      Russian Revolution 1917 - socialism

    4.      Chinese Revolution 1949 - socialism

    5.      Cuban Revolution 1959 - socialism

    6.      Algerian Revolution 1962 - national liberation

    7.      Kenyan Revolution 1963 - national liberation

He guides us to study the issues of (a) political economy, and (b) strategy and tactics of each of these different revolutionary experiences

House slave / Field slave
Then Malcolm X turns to the Black experience and begins by examining the social organization of class forces within the Black community.  He focuses on the polarity that existed during slavery, a polarity that places the origin of different class forces in relation to the origins of the enslaved Africans within the US.  The house slaves identified with the slave master, appropriated the culture and consciousness of the slave owners, and was alienated from the masses of Black people.  The field slaves were separated from whites, retained more of their African identity, and consolidated a culture around repudiating the culture and society of the white racist slave owners.

By interrogating this distinction we can open up the discussion and see how vital it is for understanding the full complexity of what we face today.  How can we read this?

  1. This is the difference service work (house) and production work (field), blue collar and white collar.

  2. This is the distinction between being connected to the mainstream and those were are socially isolated into the Black community, the Black suburbs and the inner city project.

  3. This is the distinction between highly educated Black people with high paying jobs and Black with less that a high school education working for minimum wage or unemployed.

Malcolm leads us to study the class differences within the Black community, both the objective differences (house versus field) and the subjective differences (consciousness and identity).  He speaks from the vantage point of the field, and covers many issues of culture (food), psychology (hatred for “master”), and social organization (housing).

Dialectics of Black liberation
Malcolm X contrasted what he called the Negro revolution versus the Black revolution.  He uses the paradigm of land and bloodshed to make the contrast.  He attacks the fight for integration of public accommodations as reformist, and the tactic of “suffering peacefully” as a betrayal of the right to self defense.

He makes an analysis of how the Negro leaders were not in the Black revolution but were being used by the white power structure to control the Black community.  He begins his analysis by referring to the failure of the movement in Albany GA, and Birmingham Ala.  After that he points to the emergence of militant grass roots leadership.  He refers to the internal conflict over fund raising by all  the national Negro leadership.

The main example he uses is the March on Washington 1963.  He said Kenned told the Negro leaders to stop the  militant march, and the Negro leaders said we cant stop it cause we didn’t start it.  They were then bribed into a plan that removed the militancy, and turned it into a rhetorical exercise without militant action (confrontation).  Out of this process came a council for civil rights leadership and fund raising, leading to a quick 1.5 million dollar fund.  He focuses on the ruling class tactic of co-opting Black leadership..

Call to action
This speech is a dynamite outline for a serious program of study. You have to check out what he said because this speech is just a short outline of what you need to know. You need to know what he knew, not only the brief sketch he presented in this talk.

If you want to learn more and get involved in a program of study we have prepared a study guide for this purpose. CLICK HERE FOR STUDY GUIDE