“If violence is wrong in America, it is wrong abroad.” —Malcolm X
In November 1963, Malcolm X gave one of his last public speeches to a mostly Black audience in Detroit, MI. In one segment of “the Message to the Grassroots,” he highlights the hypocrisy of advocating nonviolent action within the US but promoting violent military actions outside it. (The video captions aren’t accurate: refer to this transcript instead.)
The context of the speech shapes the text.
It’s important to understand where this speech falls on the historical timeline.
- June 1963: Thich Quang Duc self-immolates in Saigon, Vietnam to protest Vietnamese repression of Buddhists. The US has been enmeshed with the Vietnam War for nine years, and US citizens are still being drafted for military support assignments there.
- August 1963: About 250,000 people attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, DC.
- September 1963: The Ku Klux Klan bombs the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, killing four Black girls and wounding more than twenty other people.
- November 1963: South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem is assassinated during a military coup in Saigon; his death deepens instability and sets the US up for combat involvement.
- November 1963: Malcolm X gives a speech titled “The Message to the Grassroots” at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference, Detroit, MI.
- November 1963: Less than two weeks later, United States President John F. Kennedy is assassinated while in Dallas, TX. Malcolm X is suspended from the Nation of Islam for unauthorized comments about Kennedy and the country’s history.
- March 1964: Malcolm X leaves the Nation of Islam.
- April 1964: Malcolm X converts to Sunni Islam, completes a Hajj to Mecca, and begins touring Africa and Europe.
- June 1964: Malcolm launches the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which promotes Pan-African solidarity.
- July 1964: The FBI designates the OAAU a national security threat. Meanwhile, acting US President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, Washington, DC.
- November 1964: The United States elects Johnson as president.
- February 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated in New York City.
- August 1965: US President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act.
Malcolm X gave the Message to the Grassroots speech just 12 days before Kennedy’s assassination, before the comments that ultimately saw him suspended as the Nation of Islam’s spokesman and expelled from the organization. Until then, however, he spoke in the name and from the perspective of the Nation of Islam. The speech reflects the NOI’s insistence that Black Americans had a constitutional right to self-defense but it was futile to expect the United States government to honor Black rights through legislation. The speech also foreshadows the global solidarity Malcolm expressed during his all-too-brief work after leaving the Nation.
While he spoke in Detroit, the activists he referred to who organized the March on Washington were pressuring the Kennedy administration and Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Both laws answered some of the March leadership’s specific policy demands, but both were also still in process in 1963 and neither had certain passage through Congress.
Malcolm died before the end of the timeline above, in medias res, in the middle of things, and what’s clear in this speech is his (and the Nation’s) belief that the United States government was a fountain of hypocrisy and only grassroots initiative could provoke deep change. Given the role that the 1963 uprisings had in motivating governmental support for federal civil rights, Malcolm may have been right about grassroots power and the threat of revolutionary violence. Read the full text of his speech.
Framing just change as inevitable is a post hoc error.
Black History Month is nearly complete. The documentaries, photographs, and testimonies, enlightening as they are, mask the deeply ambiguous environment that past eras’ change-makers worked in. It can feel and sound good to chant, “We will win!” But when we look back at history or even the sample of revolutions that Malcolm reviewed in his speech, there’s no way to know for sure that we will.
There will always be change, and that’s all time is: a measure of change. But not all change is just.
Framing just futures as inevitable means masking the human cost of the betwixt-and-between phase: after we know we need just change, but before we actually have it. In this phase, change-makers quit steady jobs to take up advocacy, or defer education, childbearing, relationships, or traditional career paths to stay mobile and flexible, or spend what disposable income they have on therapists, trauma counselors, or medicine to resolve injuries they sustain while they work.
All this in the name of change, or as Malcolm put it, “revolution.”
Gains are shared, but costs are not. And some suffering is invisible.
Revolution includes invisible work. While the potential gains from sought justice are collective, the risks and penalties devolve to the individual in both overt traumas and missed opportunities. We haven’t yet developed systems that can protect and secure those who risk safety, mental health, emotional well-being, and professional progress to call the status quo into maturity and make things better for everyone.
Here in the not-yet before the dawn of a just world, sincere people still debate the reality of climate change over the testimony of Vanatu and Fiji residents who can no longer live on ancestral land. Justice deferred means LGBTQ youth alienated or expelled from religious families can not only be shelter-less but also face bureaucracies that block their attempts to build housing. In the interim, we can, like Malcolm, treat state violence abroad as an argument against state violence at home, or leverage violence at home as a criticism of violence conducted abroad, not realizing that violence anywhere undermines human life everywhere and no “collateral damage” is tolerable.
Calling for revolution can mean taking some kinds of suffering for granted and making other kinds invisible.
I bristled when I first heard Malcolm’s comments in 1963 on bloodless revolution. He accused the nonviolent of cowardice, yet when I think about the principled nonviolence of that era, I think of people like Bayard Rustin who were willing to oppose US militarism to the point of two years in jail and people like Amelia Boynton Robinson who absorbed state troopers’ blows on Bloody Sunday as well as years of resistance in voter rights organizing.
Their change work wasn’t “bloodless,” and it still isn’t today. People are still bleeding but because their injuries aren’t always physical and don’t look like the heroism we’ve been trained to applaud, we barely notice them. People being traumatized as they call and work for deep and substantive change aren’t recognized when they suffer.
In the Hebrew scriptures, Rahab allows two Israelites to slip out of Jericho undetected, and they make sure she can escape before their army overruns her city. They literally protected her, and that was the responsible thing to do. It’s irresponsible to call people to join change efforts without ensuring they’ll be safe when the status quo starts to fall apart.
Change work has material consequences, and we can’t expect individuals to absorb them all. If violence is wrong abroad, and wrong in America, it must also be wrong within the “revolution,” and we have a responsibility to reduce or eliminate it.
Wherever you have influence, help the collective to do things differently.
- Make sure the people in your sphere have the necessities: food, water, shelter, and friendship.
- Reassess the expectations your group has for the time, skills, and energy group members will offer. Distribute the demand.
- Reassess how you compensate group members.
- Think about how you can actively encourage members to rest, take vacations, seek professional care when needed, or follow treatment or recovery plans.
The revolution may not be televised, but it has to be truly humane, or it will be worthless.