Revisiting the November 1963 Grassroots Leadership Conference
This week is the 50th anniversary of the Grassroots Leadership Conference (GRLC), which most people associate with Malcolm X’s speech at the closing rally. In his speech, Malcolm projected his own ideology for the Black revolution, which, he explained, is based on a struggle over land and on a class distinction between field Negroes and house Negroes, and is therefore very different from a Negro revolution.
Few people know why we called the conference a Grassroots Conference. Even fewer people know the closing rally had been preceded by a week of workshops in the community in which we planned the organizing of the all-Black Freedom Now Party, and a boycott of General Motors.
I was one of the main GRLC organizers working with Milton Henry. In my autobiography “Living for Change,” I explain why we organized our own grassroots conference, separate and distinct from the Summit Leadership Conference, which was meeting in a downtown hotel. It was because the Summit leaders had decided to exclude us as too radical.
When we were excluded, Milton, who was a friend of Malcolm’s, suggested we invite Malcolm to speak at our conference and he accepted. I had no idea what Malcolm would say. I didn’t know he had broken off relations with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, after discovering Muhammad had fathered children with his secretaries. Nor did I know Malcolm had been developing politically because Max Stanford had been going from political discussions with my late husband James Boggs in Detroit to political discussions with Malcolm in New York.
When JFK was assassinated two weeks after the conference, Malcolm’s comment, “The chickens have come home to roost,” was another sign of his readiness to break with Elijah Muhammad, who suspended him for the comment because he was afraid it would bring the wrath of the authorities down on the Nation.
After the GRLC, Malcolm embarked on a tour to Africa and the Middle East instead of coming to Detroit, (which we and others recommended), where the Black revolution was actually developing and would have enormously benefitted from his leadership.
Following the GRLC, I analyzed its significance in the November 1963 issue of Correspondence:
“The Black Revolution in the North is less than six months old. Beginning after Birmingham as a sympathy movement for the South, it has now begun to work out its own philosophy and strategies, based upon the specific grievances which face the (n)orthern Negro.
“The majority of these attending this conference were young people in their 20s and 30s, most of whom had been born or reared in the big (n)orthern cities: rank-and-file factory and office workers, teachers, young professionals and students, mostly from working class backgrounds….
“The Black revolution in the North is also more confronted with economic issues than the revolution in the South. In the South, Negroes are still fighting for the right to equal access to public accommodations and for the right to register and vote. To gain even these rights they may have to take public power. But in the North, Negroes already have these rights, at least officially. Therefore, whether they work (i.e. whether they eat) and why they work, whether they vote and why they vote become crucial questions.
“This was made abundantly clear by both Malcolm X and Rev. Albert B. Cleage.”