Message to the Grassroots: In Unity and Struggle

May 23, 2010

Malcolm X was one of the twentieth century’s most gifted leaders and orators. He used his speeches critique American racism and to reeducate blacks regarding their identity (Africans in Americans), purpose (free themselves from racial oppression) and direction (serve as a revolutionary political and social force capable of building a more humane society). In honor and celebration of the life, work and achievement of Malcolm X we present two of his most important speeches Message to the Grassroots and The Ballot or the Bullet. Both of these speeches highlight Malcolm X’s incisive analysis of America, his brilliant and thoughtful use of language as a tool to demystify the dominance of white views and values and enlighten African Americans as to their human and political potential and possibilities.

Message to the Grassroots

Message to the Grassroots, one of the last speeches Malcolm gave as a member of the Nation of Islam, is one of Malcolm’s classic speeches. This speech along with The Ballot or the Bullet ranks with Frederick Douglass’s speech, the Meaning of July Forth for the Negro. The speech was delivered in November 1963, approximately three months after the historic March on Washington, at the Grassroots Conference called by Rev. Albert Cleage and members of the Group On Advance Leadership. The conference was called as a response the exclusion of the black nationalists and Freedom Now Party from the Northern Negro Leadership conference called by the Detroit Council for Human Rights.


Message to the Grassroots takes as its overarching theme unity among African Americans. Malcolm outlines the sources and causal factors which undermine and operate against unity. Here, he identifies slavery as the historical origins of class conflict among African Americans, a contributing factor to the division among blacks. Using the concept of the House Negro and the Field Negro, he brilliantly shows how historically, the black middle class leadership has compromise the interest of black people as whole to advance their own class interest which was inextricably tied to the white establishment. Malcolm cites the Bandung Conference as a model of unity which African Americans can emulate and an example of the unity of “Third World” people or people of color. And finally, in this speech, Malcolm begins to broach the subject of violence as an alternative to nonviolence and revolution as the correct and most effective mode of struggle for black to achieve their aim of freedom. 

Historical Problem of Race

 Malcolm from the start frames his address around the historical issue of race in America. “We all agree tonight,” Malcolm declares, “all of the speakers have agreed that America has a very serious problem. Not only does America have a very serious problem, but our people have a very serious problem.” America’s problem, as he states, is problem which the nation has been avoiding since the end of slavery- full citizenship rights. The refusal of white America to come to terms with the full citizenship of African Americans one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation was a problem still haunting America.

The Imperative of Unity

Malcolm then addresses what he sees as the imperative of unity-the key determinant of black freedom. Malcolm asserts, “What you and I need to do is lean to forget our differences. When we come together, we don’t come together as Baptists or Methodists. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Baptist, and you don’t catch hell because you’re a Methodists… you don’t catch hell because you are a Democrat or Republican…and you sure don’t catch hell because you are an American, because if you were an American you wouldn’t catch hell. You catch hell because you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.”

Lessons of Bandung

What black people needed to do, Malcolm, said was to “stop airing our differences in front of the white man, put the white man out of our meetings, and then sit down and talk shop with each other.” He cites the historic Bandung Conference as a model blacks needed to emulate.  unity in diversity, unity without uniformity.

I Bandung back in, I think, 1954, was the first unity meeting in centuries of black people. And once you study what happened at the Bandung conference, and the results of the Bandung conference, it actually serves as a model for the same procedure you and I can use to get our problems solved.

Lesson: Unity in diversity, unity without uniformity. “At Bandung all the nations came together, the dark nations from Africa and Asia…Despite their religious differences, they came together. Some were communist, some were socialists, and some were capitalist-despite their economic and political differences, they came together. All of them were black, brown, red or yellow.”

Lesson: Common oppressor. “The same man that was colonizing our people in Kenya was colonizing our people in the Congo. The same one in the Congo was colonizing our people in South Africa, and in Southern Rhodesia, and in Burma, and in India, and in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan. They realized all over the world where the dark man was being oppressed, he was being oppressed by the white man; where the dark man was being exploited, he was being exploited by the white man. So they got together under this basis—that they had a common enemy.”

Lesson: What all Africans, including those in America, have in common is their oppression and oppressor. “We have a common enemy. We have this in common: We have a common oppressor, a common exploiter, and a common discriminator. But once we all realize that we have this common enemy, then we unite on the basis of what we have in common. And what we have foremost in common is that enemy—the white man. He’s an enemy to all of us…whether he’s in Georgia or Michigan, whether he’s in California or New York

Class Conflict: House Negro and Field Negro

Perhaps the most memorable and often quoted part of Message to the Grassroots is Malcolm’s introduction of the concept of the House Negro and the Field Negro. Malcolm’s metaphoric use of the terms House and Field Negro resonated with black in the audience and beyond as they were all familiar with the role and function these two categories of blacks played in assimilating the role and psychology of slavery and in rejecting white dominance and slavery. Though the issue of class and class conflict and struggle is often view and associated with Marxism, Malcolm introduces and grounds the notion of class conflict and struggle in the historical framework of slavery.

Class conflict rooted in slavery

Malcolm references slavery as the staring point for understanding the problematic of class leadership for African Americans, stating, “To understand this, you have to go back to what [the] young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro- back during slavery. There was two kinds of slaves. There was the house Negro and the field Negro.” 

Cultivation of black leaders as a compromise class

 Malcolm X skillfully and insightfully shows how whites slave owners cultivated some blacks to align their interest with theirs with. Malcolm asserts, “The house Negroes — they lived in the house with master…; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.”

The identification of blacks who worked in the house with their slave owners comprised their interest with the majority of other blacks, and led to a black leadership class tied to white interest.

If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, 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… That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a “house nigger.” And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggers running around here.

Liberation potential of the black masses

Malcolm then contrasts the house Negro with the field Negro. He sees the field Negro as the class with revolutionary potential. “On that same plantation,” Malcolm states, “there was the field Negro. The field Negro- those were the masses. There were always more Negroes in the field than there was Negroes in the house. The Negro in the field caught hell. He ate leftovers. In the house they ate high up on the hog… The field Negro was beaten from morning to night. He lived in a shack, in a hut; He wore old, castoff clothes. He hated his master. I say he hated his master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master. But that field Negro- remember, they were in the majority, and they hated the master.”

Malcolm concludes that the condition of those blacks who worked in the field help to determine and shape their class interest which was diametrically opposed to whites and blacks that worked in the house among whites. The blacks in the field represented the majority, like contemporary blacks were clear about their oppression and oppressor. Malcolm underscores this point, arguing: “When the house caught on fire, he didn’t try and put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze… You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro. The masses are the field Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear these little Negroes talking about “our government is in trouble.” They say, “The government is in trouble.

 White Control of Black Leadership

Malcolm X uses the class issues to demonstrate how the civil rights leadership which aligned itself with the liberal white establishment, i.e., white power brokers, policy-makers, and therefore muted the voice of the black masses and restricted their actions and strategies. Using again slavery as a framework to explain modern day black leadership, Malcolm states, “Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.”

Black Revolution versus Negro Revolution

Malcolm discussion of the Black revolution and the Negro revolutions features one of his classic quotes: “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” He uses history to trace the method which was used to gain freedom stating, “And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours. And once you see how they got theirs straight, then you know how you can get yours straight. There’s been a revolution, a black revolution, going on in Africa.”

Malcolm argues that the method of struggle which other people have used to gain their freedom is instructive and informative for African Americans.

So I cite these various revolutions, brothers and sisters, to show you- you don’t have a peaceful revolution. You don’t have a turn-the-other-cheek revolution. There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution. [The] only kind of revolution that’s nonviolent is the Negro revolution. The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution. The only revolution in which the goal is a desegregated lunch counter, a desegregated theater, a desegregated park, and a desegregated public toilet; you can sit down next to white folks on the toilet. That’s no revolution. Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.

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