King, Malcolm, and the Future of the Black Revolution (1968)

Wel­fare rights activists in the Poor People’s Cam­paign, march­ing past the rub­ble of a Wash­ing­ton, D.C. store burned down dur­ing the riots after King’s assas­si­na­tion (May 12, 1968).

James Boggs’s essay on Mar­tin Luther King’s assas­si­na­tion was pub­lished in the Ital­ian col­lec­tion Lot­ta di classe e razz­is­mo (Lat­erza, 1968), and then appeared in Racism and the Class Strug­gle: Fur­ther Pages from a Black Worker’s Note­book (Month­ly Review, 1970), now out of print. The essay is repro­duced here with the kind per­mis­sion of Month­ly Review Press. Boggs’s The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion: Pages From a Negro Worker’s Note­book, and Rev­o­lu­tion and Evo­lu­tion in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry (co-authored with Grace Lee Bog­gs), are both avail­able from Month­ly Review.

A few days ago Dr. Mar­tin Luther King was gunned down in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, where for the sec­ond time in less than two weeks he was get­ting ready to lead a unit­ed black com­mu­ni­ty in a march to demon­strate sup­port of the garbage work­ers. The garbage work­ers of Mem­phis, like those through­out the South, are pre­dom­i­nant­ly black, and 40 per­cent of their num­ber could qual­i­fy for wel­fare rolls on the basis of their pay.

For near­ly two months the Mem­phis garbage work­ers had been on strike for union recog­ni­tion and bet­ter pay and work­ing con­di­tions. The key issue was union recog­ni­tion, which the city admin­is­tra­tion refused because that would mean rec­og­niz­ing the right of blacks to orga­nize their pow­er. The may­or, in fact, had been elect­ed by whites, in a city that is about 40 per­cent black, on a pro­gram for keep­ing the blacks in their place (“law and order”). On Feb­ru­ary 25 he had cre­at­ed the offi­cial cli­mate for crush­ing any strug­gles by black peo­ple by vio­lence when he refused to nego­ti­ate with the garbage work­ers and had the police beat and spray with MACE the black cit­i­zens of Mem­phis, 1,000 strong, who had come to the city coun­cil cham­bers to demon­strate their sup­port of the garbage work­ers.

Dur­ing the first march some rel­a­tive­ly minor vio­lence had erupt­ed when young­sters broke win­dows and hurled bricks, and the police had imme­di­ate­ly over-react­ed by club­bing and tear-gassing peace­ful marchers. The exces­sive counter-vio­lence and the sub­se­quent bring­ing in of the Nation­al Guard gave fur­ther offi­cial encour­age­ment to counter-rev­o­lu­tion­ary assas­sins.

King was mur­dered in the pres­ence of over 150 police­men and oth­er wit­ness­es. The white man who was seen drop­ping a rifle and flee­ing after the shoot­ing has as of this date not been appre­hend­ed, or if he has been, the fact has not been made pub­lic. Dur­ing the week­end fol­low­ing King’s bru­tal mur­der, blacks erupt­ed in over 100 cities. Scores of these cities were set to the torch, and many of them were then put under mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion and dusk-to-dawn cur­fews rem­i­nis­cent of the black­outs of Britain and occu­pied Europe dur­ing World War II. Nation­al Guards­men, state police, and fed­er­al troops patrolled the streets in car­a­vans of police cars and tanks—even in a city like Detroit, where the num­ber of fires had been less than that dur­ing rou­tine peri­ods. A nation­al cri­sis exist­ed.

Since the Watts rebel­lion of 1965 there has been more war­fare between blacks and the author­i­ties, spon­ta­neous­ly erupt­ing over inci­dents of police bru­tal­i­ty or cold-blood­ed killings, than dur­ing the two years pre­ced­ing the first Civ­il War. Each and every erup­tion could be traced to some overt or covert form of bru­tal­i­ty by some facet of U.S. author­i­ty or by some white fas­cist who knew he had white offi­cial sup­port. King’s assas­si­na­tion, whether it came from those opposed to his sup­port of a local black com­mu­ni­ty or his stand on the Viet­nam war (the dif­fer­ence being only one of nation­al or inter­na­tion­al racism), has bro­ken the last link of the chain bind­ing whites and blacks. When or if some new link will be forged remains to. be decid­ed by the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the strug­gle.

In assess­ing the rea­son why King was mur­dered, it is not impor­tant that King was the leader of a non-vio­lent move­ment. King is dead because he act­ed, and as every school­boy knows Pla­to talked and no one cared, but Socrates act­ed and was dri­ven to his death. Real­iz­ing that this bru­tal mur­der has bro­ken the last link between blacks and whites, the white pow­er struc­ture from the President’s office down through gov­er­nors, may­ors, and lib­er­als has co-opt­ed King in order to empha­size his strat­e­gy of non-vio­lence and belief in the leg­isla­tive process and the fun­da­men­tal redeema­bil­i­ty of whites. They are try­ing to con­vince the black peo­ple that this is the only way to black lib­er­a­tion. The mur­der of King and of the scores of oth­er blacks who adopt­ed King’s approach is dis­proof of their every utter­ance.

On the oth­er hand, the mur­der of Mal­colm, who refused to restrict the move­ment to non-vio­lence and had no illu­sions about the white man, demon­strates that it is not enough just to repeat Malcolm’s famous dic­tum of “by all means nec­es­sary,” as so many black nation­al­ists do. The most impor­tant issue is not vio­lence or non-vio­lence. The black move­ment in this coun­try will con­tin­ue to pay the heavy price of assas­si­na­tion of its lead­ers until it has enough pow­er to estab­lish its own law and order in spe­cif­ic areas. The issue is whether and when the move­ment can build an orga­ni­za­tion strong enough to strug­gle by all means nec­es­sary to win this pow­er, some­times vio­lent­ly, some­times non-vio­lent­ly, some­times retreat­ing, some­times attack­ing, some­times on the defen­sive, some­times on the offen­sive, but always retain­ing suf­fi­cient ini­tia­tive to main­tain a momen­tum toward its objec­tive of pow­er, decid­ing what it can achieve at each stage of the strug­gle in terms of its goals and objec­tives just as any mil­i­tary gen­er­al in war sizes up his oppo­nents and elects when to fight and when not to fight.

A rev­o­lu­tion is not just con­stant fight­ing. There are times when it is nec­es­sary to devel­op the cadre and the peo­ple by engag­ing them in cer­tain polit­i­cal strug­gles to advance their knowl­edge and devel­op their tal­ent for engag­ing the ene­my as well as for lead­ing not-as-yet-engaged sec­tions of the com­mu­ni­ty into the fray to strength­en its social force. In fact, the rhetoric of the black move­ment today is far beyond its lead­ers’ capac­i­ty to pro­duce. This rhetoric not only exceeds the movement’s orga­ni­za­tion­al strength and struc­ture to imple­ment. It also tends to dis­guise the lack of clar­i­ty as to the kind of Black Pow­er which blacks are seek­ing. For this rea­son alone the move­ment has and will con­tin­ue for some time to take the form of spon­ta­neous erup­tions.

To eval­u­ate King one has to look back to where today’s strug­gle start­ed, keep­ing in mind that all rev­o­lu­tions start with demands for reform by an oppressed group. If those demands are grant­ed, the move­ment may stop and the peri­od is called a “ref­or­ma­tion.” How­ev­er, if the demands of the reform move­ment are not grant­ed or if they do not achieve what the peo­ple inter­pret them to mean, the peo­ple usu­al­ly go on beyond and make a rev­o­lu­tion, rec­og­niz­ing that only by tak­ing pow­er from those in pow­er can they make the changes and achieve the rights that they have come to believe are theirs.

When Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat in the front of the bus thir­teen years ago in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, she did what no black in the South had done since Recon­struc­tion and what none of today’s black mil­i­tants in the North would have done if they had been in the South at that time. For that, if noth­ing more, Mrs. Parks is the moth­er of the present-day strug­gle.

Mar­tin Luther King was pushed into the lead­er­ship of the move­ment because he was young and because he had not antag­o­nized any of the old South­ern preach­ers who, like their North­ern coun­ter­parts, were serv­ing the white pow­er struc­ture by paci­fy­ing black work­ers and domes­tics on Sun­days so that they could be ready to go back to work on Mon­day and endure anoth­er week of indig­ni­ties and bru­tal­i­ties. The com­mu­ni­ty thought he could work between the preach­ers and the peo­ple, nev­er rec­og­niz­ing that he would go far beyond their wildest dreams.

In the weeks and months fol­low­ing his bap­tism to the wrath of the white racist—the bomb­ing of his home, the police harass­ment, the efforts to sab­o­tage the strug­gle by the courts—King caught the imag­i­na­tion of black peo­ple, both North and South. Up North there was not a sin­gle one of today’s black nation­al­ist lead­ers and mil­i­tants who did not feel a rela­tion to King’s move­ment, if he was old enough at the time. Any mil­i­tant old enough to attend a ral­ly sang “We Shall Over­come” with as much fer­vor as any of King’s fol­low­ers in the South. For in this peri­od no North­ern­ers were car­ry­ing on any seri­ous strug­gle. The Mus­lims, who had been devel­op­ing a phi­los­o­phy of black­ness, were only active inter­nal­ly. Oth­er nation­al­ists dreamed of going back to Africa “some day.” There were some blacks up North work­ing in the Fair Employ­ment Prac­tices com­mit­tees of the labor move­ment, but not one of these old labor activists had advanced even as far as King.

There can be no ques­tion that King’s move­ment was a reform move­ment and that it had as its intent the ref­or­ma­tion of white peo­ple. His phi­los­o­phy was one which could have been rev­o­lu­tion­ary in the sense of dis­plac­ing those in pow­er only if it had been devel­oped in a coun­try like India, where the oppressed were the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty strug­gling against a small colo­nial­ist rul­ing minor­i­ty. An oppressed minor­i­ty, how­ev­er, can win only by rev­o­lu­tion. Actu­al­ly, of course, all rev­o­lu­tions are start­ed by minori­ties who in the course of the strug­gle either win over or divide the major­i­ty suf­fi­cient­ly even if they are all one eth­nic group­ing.

In the Unit­ed States blacks are a minor­i­ty. How­ev­er, because four-fifths of the world is black and in a rev­o­lu­tion­ary or pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary stage of devel­op­ment, blacks in the Unit­ed States are not a minor­i­ty in the usu­al sense of the word. They are also one of the largest minori­ties that a coun­try has ever had inside itself. And in the largest cities all over the coun­try they are very close to a major­i­ty. Because of their strate­gic posi­tions, both phys­i­cal­ly and socio-psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, they have the capac­i­ty, if orga­nized, to cre­ate bases of pow­er for them­selves in var­i­ous areas and at var­i­ous points of divi­sion among the ene­my.

King’s move­ment, based as it was on the recla­ma­tion of the white man, did not intend to be a rev­o­lu­tion. It was rev­o­lu­tion­ary, nonethe­less, in the sense that from its incep­tion it went fur­ther in con­fronting whites and in cre­at­ing con­flict between black and white over issues than any blacks, North or South, had ever dreamed of try­ing to go before. And even though civ­il rights are only the nor­mal com­mon rights that a nation should grant to its cit­i­zens, the civ­il rights strug­gle in this coun­try was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle because blacks had been denied these nor­mal rights.

Any move­ment, reformist or rev­o­lu­tion­ary, has to have con­crete objec­tives, a gen­er­al strat­e­gy to achieve these objec­tives, and a cadre orga­nized around these. King’s move­ment ful­filled these needs. His objec­tives or demands con­sist­ed of legal guar­an­tees of black people’s rights to equal access to pub­lic accom­mo­da­tions, to reg­is­ter and vote, and to oth­er forms of civ­il rights. His offen­sive strat­e­gy was based on the method of con­fronta­tion. Blacks, con­vinced of the right­ness of their demands, con­front­ed whites who either had to yield to these just demands or expose them­selves as defend­ers of the inde­fen­si­ble. His orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture was geared to achieve these objec­tives by this method. True, he also believed that whites could be redeemed through the hero­ic suf­fer­ing of black peo­ple. Bor­row­ing from Gand­hi, his strat­e­gy includ­ed non-vio­lence, but behind the rhetoric it can be seen that this served main­ly as a means of dis­ci­pline among the demon­stra­tors. His cadres were effec­tive because of this dis­ci­pline, but they were also dis­ci­plined by the pre­ci­sion of his objec­tives, his method of offen­sive strug­gle for objec­tives, and an orga­ni­za­tion built around the objec­tives and offen­sive meth­ods. His orga­ni­za­tion brought togeth­er cler­gy­men, busi­ness­men, pro­fes­sion­al men, and stu­dents. They raised mon­ey and planned the sit-ins, the cam­paigns for vot­er reg­is­tra­tion, and the innu­mer­able demon­stra­tions by which black com­mu­ni­ties hacked away at seg­re­ga­tion­ist resis­tance and low­ered  the bar­ri­ers against blacks in the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and social life of the nation.

Main­tain­ing a con­tin­u­ous offen­sive, King also had what few black lead­ers have exhib­it­ed up to this date, an instinct for the right time to attack, which is the test for any leader, rev­o­lu­tion­ary or not. This is reaf­firmed by his last act, the move into Mem­phis to engage in a strug­gle which the labor move­ment had ignored because of its racism and because of its fear of antag­o­niz­ing the polit­i­cal struc­ture, and which the Black Pow­er groups could not help because they have not yet devised a strat­e­gy for con­fronta­tion in order to cre­ate the con­flict, and thus the gath­er­ing momen­tum, nec­es­sary to a move­ment.

King’s crit­ics of today and yes­ter­day point out that many of King’s actions did not achieve results, refer­ring par­tic­u­lar­ly to Albany, Geor­gia; Birm­ing­ham, Alaba­ma; and Chica­go, Illi­nois. This is true, but even in fail­ure King’s move­ment achieved suc­cess in that it exposed the bru­tal­i­ty of the white pow­er struc­ture and, like the Mus­lims, gave black peo­ple a sense of con­fi­dence in them­selves and the courage to hack away at the long-held feel­ings of self-hate, com­plete frus­tra­tion, and despair of ever being any­thing but just “anoth­er nig­ger.”

Although his­to­ry will record King’s move­ment as the most vital in the peri­od of ref­or­ma­tion, there are cer­tain things that the rev­o­lu­tion owes him. His courage against odds, his sense of tim­ing, and his readi­ness to assume the polit­i­cal risks that lead­er­ship impos­es make him the father of the present-day move­ment. The move­ment today has gone beyond King and ref­or­ma­tion. But in 1955 when oth­ers were only talk­ing about leav­ing the South and boast­ing of how they would not live down South and how much bet­ter off they were up North, King act­ed by assum­ing lead­er­ship of a strug­gle which no oth­er black man then dared to lead. For that, his­to­ry not only will enshrine him but will absolve him of some of his fail­ings. And even after black folks have for­got­ten what he did for them, they will still remem­ber that he was vio­lent­ly killed by a white man and in the pres­ence of at least 150 police offi­cers.

North­ern attempts to apply the strat­e­gy and tac­tics of King in the years after Birm­ing­ham had very lit­tle to show in the way of suc­cess. The mis­eries of slum life in the black ghet­to could not be alle­vi­at­ed by civ­il rights leg­is­la­tion. Civ­il rights groups boy­cotted stores, pick­et­ed con­struc­tion projects, etc., in an effort to get bet­ter jobs for blacks. They boy­cotted seg­re­gat­ed schools in protest against infe­ri­or edu­ca­tion. But the lib­er­al regimes up North did not respond with the same kind of counter-vio­lence which had helped the strug­gle in the South devel­op a momen­tum of its own. Thus the civ­il rights demon­stra­tions and protests in the North only helped to expose the futil­i­ty of such meth­ods to achieve any sig­nif­i­cant progress, and helped to dri­ve the lead­er­ship of the move­ment to the con­clu­sion that blacks must acquire pow­er if they are to change their lives.

This first peri­od of strug­gle in the North cul­mi­nat­ed in the assas­si­na­tion of Mal­colm in Feb­ru­ary 1965. Unlike King, Mal­colm was killed by a black man, who, how­ev­er, stat­ed at the tri­al that he had been paid by some­one to do the killing, a ques­tion which the pros­e­cu­tor did not pur­sue. At Malcolm’s funer­al, unlike at King’s, not one white leader had any­thing to say; nor were there any white lead­ers there, even though Mal­colm had spo­ken to white audi­ences all over the coun­try and many celebri­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly TV and radio celebri­ties, boast­ed that they were friends of Malcolm’s. But whites were not going to lend legit­i­ma­cy to any of Malcolm’s ideas by attend­ing his funer­al.

Mal­colm had not only come from the Mus­lim move­ment. In Detroit in 1963, when he made his famous Grass­roots Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence speech, he had begun to deal with rev­o­lu­tion and rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles and to place the black rev­o­lu­tion, as dis­tin­guished from the “Negro rev­o­lu­tion” so beloved by whites, in the tra­di­tion of the great French and Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tions. The orga­ni­za­tion to which he belonged, the Nation of Islam, had played a very impor­tant role in reha­bil­i­tat­ing black peo­ple, both those inside the orga­ni­za­tion and, by its influ­ence, those who did not actu­al­ly join. But it had not evolved any strat­e­gy of strug­gle to achieve the pow­er nec­es­sary for black peo­ple to rule them­selves in a con­crete polit­i­cal man­ner. To this day the Mus­lims have not seemed to under­stand that even the Mus­lim reli­gion at one time required not only a reli­gious rev­o­lu­tion for men’s minds but also a tremen­dous pow­er strug­gle by Mus­lim lead­ers and their fol­low­ers, just as those ded­i­cat­ed to the Chris­t­ian reli­gion had to car­ry out great pow­er strug­gles and cru­sades to insti­tute Chris­tian­i­ty in the areas where it now pre­vails.

Today, even more than in the reli­gious era, the strug­gles for men’s minds require con­crete strug­gles for the pow­er to rule over land, goods, and the means by which goods are pro­duced.

Mal­colm X’s speech to the Grass­roots Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence revealed that it was essen­tial­ly on this issue of strug­gle for pow­er that Mal­colm was begin­ning to find life inside the Mus­lims increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult. An orga­niz­er and rev­o­lu­tion­ist by tem­pera­ment, increas­ing­ly exposed to polit­i­cal ideas about past and present rev­o­lu­tions in oth­er coun­tries, Malcolm’s mind and skills could longer be con­tained with­in the apoc­a­lyp­tic vision of black ascen­dan­cy and white denoue­ment of the Black Mus­lim reli­gion.

Malcolm’s polit­i­cal life, though brief, left an inerad­i­ca­ble impact on the black move­ment and the black mass­es, because he led the move­ment out of the stage of civ­il rights into the stage of strug­gle for Black Pow­er. Although he was sur­round­ed by intel­lec­tu­als, he began to arouse the deep­est lay­er of the black mass which, up North in par­tic­u­lar, had not seemed inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the strug­gle at all. The method he used was that of chid­ing and even berat­ing them for, their self-hate, their accep­tance of the white man in the Amer­i­ca as their supe­ri­or, and their efforts to make them­selves accept­able to him and to inte­grate with the white enemy—when all the time they were being sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly seg­re­gat­ed and degrad­ed by this ene­my.

The phrase “Mal­colm said” became the by-word of the black move­ment soon after Mal­colm was oust­ed from the Mus­lims for stat­ing pub­licly that the “chick­ens have come to roost” in ref­er­ence to Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion. In this state­ment he summed up unfor­get­tably what many blacks were vague­ly aware of but had not been able to or had been afraid to artic­u­late. Black peo­ple knew, even as they mourned Kennedy, that the Kennedy gov­ern­ment had talked about civ­il rights but had not pros­e­cut­ed one white per­son for the killings, beat­ings, and bru­tal­iza­tions of the blacks engaged in the civ­il rights strug­gle But blacks didn’t want to face this fact. Mal­colm stat­ed it so that it had to be faced. This is what he was always doing.

Mal­colm was fear­less in his recog­ni­tion that the black rev­o­lu­tion in the U.S.A. must be linked to the world rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle, a fact which civ­il rights lead­ers would gin­ger­ly approach and then shy away from.

Mal­colm rec­og­nized that it was nec­es­sary for the move­ment to go beyond civ­il rights to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle against the ene­my forces which pos­sessed and ruled. He saw that the strug­gle of black peo­ple in the USA—dispossessed, despised, uproot­ed from their past cul­ture and robbed of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Africa and the rest of the black world—would have to be linked up with the oth­er rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces in the world and par­tic­u­lar­ly those of Africa. Thus, after his split with Mr. Muham­mad, Mal­colm made two trips to Africa in order to estab­lish the nec­es­sary rela­tions between the nation­al and the inter­na­tion­al move­ments. In his efforts to pull togeth­er the nation­al and inter­na­tion­al forces of the black rev­o­lu­tion, Mal­colm spent much of his time dur­ing this peri­od trav­el­ing from city to city in the U.S.A. speak­ing to the nation­al forces, and trav­el­ing to Africa speak­ing to the inter­na­tion­al forces. Because this peri­od was so short, it is impos­si­ble to deter­mine who Malcolm’s con­stituents real­ly were, except that they were the black mass­es in gen­er­al. Try­ing to bridge the gap between the civ­il rights strug­gle, which was car­ry­ing out action after action in the South and was led pri­mar­i­ly by King and SNCC, and the world black rev­o­lu­tion, Mal­colm did not and could not devel­op any seri­ous cadre of peo­ple to begin to project a strat­e­gy for the phi­los­o­phy and con­cepts which he was devel­op­ing.

His now-famous state­ment, “bal­lots or bul­lets,” came not from any pro­ject­ed expe­ri­ence or action but as a reflec­tion on what was hap­pen­ing with the vot­er reg­is­tra­tion dri­ve being car­ried on by King and SNCC in the South and with attempts being made in the North, through the Free­dom Now Par­ty in Michi­gan in par­tic­u­lar, to get black peo­ple to pool their polit­i­cal pow­er by vot­ing black.

Black peo­ple up North iden­ti­fied them­selves with what Mal­colm was say­ing as he was say­ing it, in a way that they have iden­ti­fied with no oth­er black leader. But they did not iden­ti­fy with him in any actions. In the peri­od fol­low­ing the split, Mal­colm him­self insist­ed that he was an evan­ge­list rather than an orga­niz­er. It can­not be said that Mal­colm was inca­pable of orga­niz­ing. Orga­niz­ing was one of his great con­tri­bu­tions to the Mus­lims in the years when he was right-hand man to Mr. Muham­mad. But his polit­i­cal life out­side the Mus­lims was too brief to enable him to under­take orga­ni­za­tion­al work. He was sus­pend­ed in Novem­ber 1963, short­ly after Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s assas­si­na­tion. He began to devel­op inde­pen­dent­ly ear­ly in 1964, and he was slain in Feb­ru­ary 1965 fol­low­ing his orga­ni­za­tion of the Orga­ni­za­tion for Afro-Amer­i­can Uni­ty. In that peri­od, actu­al­ly last­ing less than a year, his con­tri­bu­tion was enor­mous.

Because Mal­colm rep­re­sent­ed and led the tran­si­tion from civ­il rights to rev­o­lu­tion, his fol­low­ing since his death is ten times greater than it was at any time dur­ing his life. Today many old and young, but par­tic­u­lar­ly the young, quote Mal­colm in the same way that peo­ple in Europe quote Marx and Lenin and peo­ple in Chi­na quote Mao. Mal­colm had put for­ward a his­tor­i­cal con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion in his Grass Roots speech back in 1963 in Detroit. How­ev­er, after his split the mass media took him over and por­trayed him as a pure advo­cate of vio­lence vs. non‑violence. This has made it dif­fi­cult to make a true eval­u­a­tion of Mal­colm. Take, for exam­ple, the state­ment “bal­lots or bul­lets.” The phrase con­tains the con­cept of alter­na­tives and the con­cept of esca­la­tion. That is to say, if bal­lots do not work, then there is no alter­na­tive but for the mass­es to take the road of bul­lets. The mass media, how­ev­er, for rea­sons of its own, rep­re­sent­ed Mal­colm as call­ing only for vio­lence. What Mal­colm was in fact explain­ing was that a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment makes demands which meet the needs of the mass­es for fun­da­men­tal changes. If these demands are not grant­ed by peace­ful means, the rev­o­lu­tion must have a strat­e­gy for tak­ing them. Thus, hav­ing demand­ed the right to vote, the strug­gle would have to esca­late to the point of seiz­ing pow­er to vote—first by the threat of vio­lence, and then, if that does not work, by actu­al vio­lence.

The same is true of anoth­er of Malcolm’s famous state­ments, “by all means nec­es­sary.” The phrase has been inter­pret­ed to mean only the advo­ca­cy of vio­lence. Yet Mal­colm was advo­cat­ing what every great rev­o­lu­tion­ist has advo­cat­ed, that the strat­e­gy of rev­o­lu­tion requires the esca­la­tion of demands and actions, stage by stage, in con­flict with the ene­my, uti­liz­ing the whip of the counter-rev­o­lu­tion to deep­en the con­flict and to dri­ve the rev­o­lu­tion for­ward, with­out stop­ping at the most extreme actions required to win.

Mal­colm nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to devel­op a cadre to car­ry out or attempt to car­ry out a strat­e­gy. This is what he left for the emerg­ing nation­al­ist move­ment to do and that is what up to now the nation­al­ists have not done.

Today from coast to coast black nation­al­ists meet in rev­er­ence to Mal­colm at ser­vices memo­ri­al­iz­ing both his death and his birth. They leave these meet­ings as loose and inco­her­ent as when they came in. They are no clear­er than they were at the time of Malcolm’s death.

Malcolm’s death exposed the one fun­da­men­tal weak­ness of the move­ment; that no seri­ous black cadre-type orga­ni­za­tion exists, dis­ci­plined by a polit­i­cal per­spec­tive and capa­ble of devel­op­ing and car­ry­ing out strat­e­gy and tac­tics nec­es­sary to imple­ment this per­spec­tive. In his brief inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal exis­tence Mal­colm sought to cre­ate a uni­ty of blacks. But uni­ty in gen­er­al is abstract or defen­sive and only an orga­ni­za­tion made up of those who are con­scious of the pos­i­tive objec­tives for which uni­ty is nec­es­sary can shape uni­ty into unit­ed action and give it mean­ing­ful offen­sive form.

When Stoke­ly Carmichael, the leader of SNCC from 1966 to 1967, shout­ed “Black Pow­er” on a dusty road in Mis­sis­sip­pi in June 1966, he did so in a march which had been orga­nized for civ­il rights. That the words were uttered in such a con­text does not detract from their sig­nif­i­cance nor from the sig­nif­i­cance of Stoke­ly, whose con­tri­bu­tion to the move­ment is already his­toric. But what does Black Pow­er mean in polit­i­cal and not just psy­cho­log­i­cal terms? The fail­ure to apply itself to this ques­tion remains the chief rea­son why the rapid­ly grow­ing nation­al­ist ten­den­cy has not been able to launch any offen­sives. Instead, it has been forced to depend upon the spon­ta­neous out­bursts of the mass­es, rebelling against out­rages per­pe­trat­ed by the oppres­sor. The move­ment there­fore remains frag­ment­ed into lit­tle groups, local­ly and nation­al­ly, which are more inter­est­ed in com­ing togeth­er to “rap” (talk) with each oth­er over what Mal­colm said or what the “cat on the cor­ner” is doing or might do than they are in devel­op­ing a strat­e­gy to give direc­tion and mean­ing­ful con­fronta­tion to what the “cat on the cor­ner” is ready to do. Exhibit­ing more anti-orga­ni­za­tion­al feel­ing than orga­ni­za­tion, they refuse to rec­og­nize that the prime need of any rev­o­lu­tion is a seri­ous dis­ci­plined cadre which can give lead­er­ship and struc­ture to the needs of the mass­es through demands that force them into the are­na of strug­gle. With­out such a cadre, a lead­er­ship is not lead­ing but is always wait­ing on the mass­es to react. With such a struc­ture, a lead­er­ship is in a posi­tion to place before the mass­es issues and demands and pro­pose strat­e­gy and tac­tics to real­ize those demands as well as par­al­lel hier­ar­chies to imple­ment them. The refusal of the lead­er­ship to rec­og­nize this as its spe­cif­ic task leads to a mis­con­cep­tion of the role of the mass­es in rev­o­lu­tion and in turn to a strength­en­ing of the anar­chis­tic ten­den­cies that exist in any rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.

What the present and poten­tial lead­er­ship of the black rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment needs to rec­og­nize is that, as all past his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence shows, the mass­es are not always in a state of rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness. Some days they are just going their way try­ing to eke out an exis­tence; at oth­er times they are pas­sive and can­not be aroused. Usu­al­ly they are stim­u­lat­ed to erupt as the result of the whip of the counter-rev­o­lu­tion. If the mass­es were a con­tin­u­ing con­scious mass, then the rev­o­lu­tion would have already been over! The spon­ta­neous erup­tion is deci­sive for any rev­o­lu­tion in that no suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion is pos­si­ble with­out it, but the rev­o­lu­tion­ary lead­er­ship and the cadre must be con­stant­ly giv­ing lead­er­ship, using pro­pa­gan­da and agi­ta­tion to orga­nize the strug­gle and to cre­ate the momen­tum of a con­tin­u­ous offen­sive toward rev­o­lu­tion­ary objec­tives. Across the U.S.A. spon­ta­neous erup­tions are tak­ing place and will con­tin­ue to take place, while the counter-rev­o­lu­tion is devel­op­ing its method of con­tain­ment and repres­sion. Essen­tial­ly, the method will be con­stant states of occu­pa­tion sim­i­lar to that of Europe under Hitler or of the French army in Alge­ria before the Alge­ri­ans won con­trol.

The Unit­ed States, how­ev­er, is nei­ther France nor Algeria—where the occu­pied were the numer­i­cal major­i­ty. This fac­tor alone requires the Black Pow­er move­ment to devel­op a strat­e­gy that will build a move­ment around esca­lat­ing demands and esca­lat­ing strug­gles so that the move­ment of esca­la­tion assumes a momen­tum of its own. Such a strat­e­gy can­not be devised or imple­ment­ed except by a lead­er­ship cer­tain of its polit­i­cal objec­tives and with a high­ly dis­ci­plined orga­ni­za­tion to achieve these objec­tives.

When Black Pow­er took over the cen­ter of the stage of the rev­o­lu­tion, it was not just a new stage of devel­op­ment. It also required new insights into the pos­i­tive objec­tives of the move­ment dif­fer­ent from those defined by King, and a con­crete orga­ni­za­tion to achieve these objec­tives which Mal­colm did not have the time to orga­nize. Black Pow­er now has the respon­si­bil­i­ty to struc­ture and state its demands and orga­nize its strug­gles just as King did for his stage of the move­ment. When a move­ment moves from a reform stage to a rev­o­lu­tion­ary stage, it requires not only peo­ple who have devel­oped out of the past but a clear con­cept of the fur­ther devel­op­ment of goals and strug­gles to achieve these goals.

The black move­ment today must sur­mount cer­tain polit­i­cal atti­tudes which have tak­en root dur­ing the peri­od of tran­si­tion from reform to rev­o­lu­tion.

  1. First and fore­most is the com­plete emo­tion­al rejec­tion of all past strate­gies and tac­tics.
  2. The fail­ure to devel­op and clar­i­fy the objec­tives to be strug­gled for.
  3. Anti-orga­ni­za­tion­al atti­tudes and rigid beliefs in unor­ga­nized spon­ta­neous mass erup­tions.
  4. Fail­ure to ana­lyze sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly the stage of devel­op­ment of the coun­try so that it will know what objec­tives are appro­pri­ate at this stage in pro­duc­tive, sci­en­tif­ic, polit­i­cal, and social insti­tu­tions, and the kinds of pow­er it must have in order to make the changes nec­es­sary in these insti­tu­tions.
  5. Let­ting their emo­tions and feel­ings con­trol and dic­tate their actions and reac­tions which in essence means that the lead­ers have no belief in or per­spec­tive for final vic­to­ry and there­fore are unable to instill such a per­spec­tive in the mass­es.

In his Grass­roots speech Mal­colm cit­ed the French and Russ­ian rev­o­lu­tions, empha­siz­ing the role of land in these rev­o­lu­tions and its key role in any rev­o­lu­tion, with spe­cif­ic ref­er­ence to the black (as dis­tin­guished from Negro) rev­o­lu­tion in the Unit­ed States. The con­cept of land remained gen­er­al. It was pos­si­ble to take it to mean land in the sense of farm­lands to be cul­ti­vat­ed, or the land of three or five states, or the land which black peo­ple present­ly occu­py in the cities and which is com­mon­ly referred to as their “turf.” Today the ten­den­cies with­in the Black Pow­er move­ment can be clas­si­fied accord­ing to their inter­pre­ta­tion of this cen­tral con­cept of land. The sep­a­ratists or seces­sion­ists have adapt­ed Garvey’s “back to Africa” con­cept to mean set­ting up a sep­a­rate black nation in cer­tain states, which will be con­ferred or sur­ren­dered by the U.S. gov­ern­ment under pres­sure and to avoid anar­chy in the cities. Anoth­er ten­den­cy stress­es self-deter­mi­na­tion by the black com­mu­ni­ty but leaves loose just where this black com­mu­ni­ty actu­al­ly is, refer­ring usu­al­ly to the “almost mys­ti­cal con­cept of a nation with­in a nation.” Then there are those who insist that those cities and coun­ties where blacks con­sti­tute 25 per­cent and upward of the pop­u­la­tion are the “black man’s land” in the specif­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of eth­nic groups suc­ces­sive­ly tak­ing over pow­er in the cities.

In addi­tion to these ten­den­cies, which at least begin to give Black Pow­er a habi­ta­tion, a name, and the per­spec­tive of rule or gov­ern­ment over spe­cif­ic areas or polit­i­cal units, there are also those who think of Black Pow­er pure­ly in psy­cho­log­i­cal terms—i.e., as black pride and black consciousness—and who see no pos­si­bil­i­ty of blacks as a group ever achiev­ing any rule. This ten­den­cy in turn can be divid­ed into two: 1) Mid­dle-class blacks for whom black pride and black con­scious­ness are now fash­ion­able and who think of this pride and con­scious­ness as giv­ing greater moti­va­tion to blacks to suc­ceed in Amer­i­can life; and 2) black youth in whose heads black pride and black con­scious­ness have explod­ed but who, with­out any per­spec­tive of blacks ever rul­ing, think only in terms of dying in the streets to prove their man­hood. For these youth, now com­plete­ly alien­at­ed from white soci­ety, aware that they have become expend­able in terms of the labor process, despair­ing of any future, the only prospect is get­ting rid of as many whiteys as pos­si­ble before whitey gets rid of them.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, the polit­i­cal per­spec­tive and objec­tive around which the Black Pow­er move­ment must now mobi­lize the mass­es and orga­nize itself is the con­cept of Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the cities and in those coun­ties where blacks are a near or an actu­al major­i­ty. This per­spec­tive has both the urgency and legit­i­ma­cy nec­es­sary to a suc­cess­ful strug­gle for pow­er. The cri­sis in the cities is uni­ver­sal­ly rec­og­nized as unre­solv­able by the exist­ing pow­er struc­ture. Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er has the legit­i­ma­cy that comes from the con­cept of major­i­ty rule and from the specif­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of suc­ces­sive eth­nic group­ings rul­ing in Amer­i­can cities. It has the addi­tion­al legit­i­ma­cy that comes from the fact that the whites have aban­doned the cities to the blacks for the most fla­grant racist rea­sons.

From the legit­i­ma­cy of this per­spec­tive flows a very impor­tant fact in any pow­er strug­gle, name­ly that the ene­my (i.e., the white pop­u­la­tion which oppos­es Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er) is put on the moral defen­sive. It then becomes clear that until white peo­ple in this coun­try are ready to accept black pow­er in the cities and in rur­al coun­ties where blacks are a major­i­ty with the same flex­i­bil­i­ty as they accept­ed Irish and Ital­ian pow­er in the past, they are infect­ed with racism. But the con­cept does not have moral pow­er alone. The alter­na­tive to Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er is not an inter-racial soci­ety, how­ev­er much it is or is not desired. Such a soci­ety exists only in dreams. Nor is it real­is­tic to think that blacks will even­tu­al­ly get tired of strug­gling and drift back into their “place.” No, the only real alter­na­tive to Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the sense demand­ed is unend­ing crises in the cities, crime in the streets, long hot sum­mers, naked mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion and cur­fews, all of which not only affect the black com­mu­ni­ty but also the white, cre­at­ing a dan­ger­ous soci­ety, repress­ing civ­il lib­er­ties, crip­pling the econ­o­my, destroy­ing any pos­si­bil­i­ty of nor­mal life. All these are no longer just threats. They are a real­i­ty which has already been expe­ri­enced.

Thus the per­spec­tive of Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the cities and rur­al areas con­fronts blacks and whites today with real alter­na­tives in the same fun­da­men­tal sense as the civ­il rights move­ment under King’s lead­er­ship con­front­ed blacks and whites with real alter­na­tives. True, it was eas­i­er for whites in the South and North to accept deseg­re­ga­tion in pub­lic accom­mo­da­tion than it is for them to accept Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er. But it is also true that the alter­na­tive to Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er is much more cat­a­stroph­ic.

Based on this per­spec­tive, the Black Pow­er move­ment can mobi­lize the mass­es through con­crete strug­gles for facets of munic­i­pal and rur­al pow­er: black con­trol of schools to reverse the dan­ger­ous­ly low achieve­ment lev­els of black chil­dren, black con­trol of the police to stop police bru­tal­i­ty, black school super­in­ten­dents or police com­mis­sion­ers and sher­iffs, black may­ors, black judges. The achieve­ment of any of these not only whets the appetite of blacks for more, but cre­ates the “white back­lash” which is cre­ative con­flict in the sense that it forces the black move­ment to esca­late sights to the con­quest of pow­er in order to defend its gains. In the course of these strug­gles, the move­ment is also forced to cre­ate the par­al­lel hier­ar­chies which are nec­es­sary for any new rul­ing group. It is also forced to explore what changes black rule will have to ini­ti­ate in order to solve the prob­lems of the cities in every sphere, includ­ing edu­ca­tion, social ser­vices, rela­tions to regions, state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, hous­ing, health, etc.

As the def­i­n­i­tion and goals of Black Pow­er become more con­crete, so also does the def­i­n­i­tion of the role of whites. In the peri­od of Black Pow­er as “black nation­al­ism” or “black pride’ and “black con­scious­ness,” there was no neces­si­ty to think about whites. Not only were they in the way phys­i­cal­ly, but just ask­ing blacks to think about their role seemed an impo­si­tion and a form of white self-cen­tered­ness. How­ev­er, as we move into the stage of black rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism, or the seri­ous strug­gle for pow­er, it is obvi­ous that the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment can and must use any forces which it has avail­able to weak­en, divide, or immo­bi­lize the ene­my. Up to now the black move­ment has not addressed itself to this ques­tion pri­mar­i­ly because it has not resolved the ques­tion of what it is con­crete­ly strug­gling for.

In the white com­mu­ni­ty there are var­i­ous ten­den­cies, just as there are in the black com­mu­ni­ty. The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of whites, of course, just wish that the black prob­lem or blacks them­selves would dis­ap­pear. But most whites now know that this is impos­si­ble with­out a kind of geno­ci­dal offen­sive for which white Amer­i­ca is not ready. The pow­er struc­ture hopes that the pour­ing of funds into the black com­mu­ni­ty, in the form of antipover­ty pro­grams, swim­ming pools, etc., will con­tain or paci­fy the blacks. If these do not suc­ceed, then it is ready to resort to mil­i­tary mea­sures to main­tain “law and order.”

In one sense the aver­age white work­er or mid­dle-class per­son does not care how much the pow­er struc­ture does for the black com­mu­ni­ty. The rub, how­ev­er, is that he feels the pinch in his pock­et­book in the form of tax­es and there­fore becomes increas­ing­ly sus­cep­ti­ble to the agi­ta­tion of the out-and-out fas­cist who holds up before him the threat of blacks invad­ing the white com­mu­ni­ty, rap­ing white women, etc. For these out-and-out fas­cists Hitler’s “final solu­tion” is not unac­cept­able. Mean­while, they lead oth­er whites toward that goal by their night­ly meet­ings, their gun drills, their insis­tence that the black move­ment is being led by Com­mu­nists, etc.

Final­ly, there is a very small per­cent­age of whites who rec­og­nize that this soci­ety is bank­rupt and look to the black rev­o­lu­tion as their only sal­va­tion, both for their own sur­vival in the face of the world black rev­o­lu­tion, and for the sal­vaging of old val­ues and the cre­ation of new ones. In the strug­gle for Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er in the cities and in rur­al areas where blacks are a near or actu­al major­i­ty, these whites can play an impor­tant role. They can con­front oth­er whites with the legit­i­ma­cy of Black Polit­i­cal Pow­er, divid­ing and immo­bi­liz­ing their oppo­si­tion to it. In the many areas where there are no blacks or only an infin­i­tes­i­mal num­ber of blacks, they can con­front oth­er whites in a strug­gle for pow­er over issues that are vital to them and there­by over­come the sympathizer’s posi­tion of strug­gling only out of con­cern for blacks and not in terms of their own needs and their own sur­vival. Only after rev­o­lu­tion­ary whites have tak­en some pow­er from oth­er whites now in pow­er can they sit down with rev­o­lu­tion­ary blacks who have also wrest­ed some pow­er from some whites and as equals with pow­er lay the basis for the future rela­tion­ship of the new social forces in Unit­ed States soci­ety.

Author of the article

was an auto worker, activist, and intellectual, author of The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker's Notebook.