“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research,” Malcolm X said during his “Message to the Grass Roots” speech in November 1963.
The 50th anniversary of this speech may not resonate for most Americans like Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream,” but it is one that gained considerable traction among Malcolm’s followers in the militant and radical communities of this country and elsewhere in the diaspora.
This momentous speech, delivered at King Solomon’s Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, was Malcolm’s last major address while still a member of the Nation of Islam because within two weeks President Kennedy would be assassinated prompting Malcolm’s “chickens coming home to roost” comment that led to his being silenced by Elijah Muhammad and ultimately his departure from the organization.
Even though he was still a member of the NOI at the time of this speech, there were indications of his evolving political perspective, particularly his concern for unity among people of color and the increasingly intense global conflict.
“You don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodist or a Baptist,” he told an overflow crowd at the church. “You don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or Elk, and you don’t catch hell because you’re an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn’t catch hell. You catch hell because you’re a black man.”
He cited the Bandung conference of 1955, which he mistakenly said was in 1954, to begin his discussion on the international aspect, but again the point was unity, unity of people of color that was the focus of the conference that “excluded the white man.”
Revolution and Black Nationalism consumed the heart of the speech and he expended a considerable amount of time comparing the various revolutions, including the American, Chinese and Cuban revolutions. “Revolution is bloody,” he announced, “revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, and revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.” This was also an opportunity for him to excoriate the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement by indicating you don’t do any singing during a revolution “You’re too busy swinging,” he boomed.
But no speech by Malcolm was complete without his signature commentary on the plantation and the relationship between the field workers and the house servants. “If the master got sick,” Malcolm said, “the house Negro would say ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ We sick! He identified himself with his master, more than his master identified with himself.” In his summary, he indicated that there were still some “house niggers running around here.”
On the other hand, the field Negroes, he observed, had a different outlook when the master got sick. “The field Negro prayed that he’d die.”
Though Malcolm was gradually tamping down his criticism of the civil rights leaders he still possessed enough enmity to take them to task with a special indictment of that previous summer’s March on Washington, which he defined as a “farce on Washington.” Malcolm praised the participation of the grass roots members in the march but lacerated the Big Six—Whitney Young of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; A. Philip Randolph; John Lewis of SNCC; James Farmer of CORE; and Dr. King—“they became the march,” Malcolm said.
“No, it was a sellout,” he said of the march. “It was a takeover. When James Baldwin came in from Paris, they wouldn’t let him talk because they couldn’t make him go by the script. Burt Lancaster read the speech that Baldwin was supposed to make; they wouldn’t let Baldwin get up there, because they know Baldwin is liable to say anything.”
The entire affair, Malcolm concluded was “a circus” and in his estimation the Big Six and the labor leaders such as Walter Reuther should get Academy Awards for their acting performances at the march. “Reuther and those other three devils should get Academy Awards for the best actors because they acted like they really loved Negroes and fooled a whole lot of Negroes.
“And the six Negro leaders should get an award too, for the best supporting cast,” Malcolm added toward end of his speech, and within months his relationship with the NOI would be over and he would begin his singular journey toward the final transformation of his eventful life.