Singing the song of revolution

In 1963, Malcolm X was trying to revolutionise America. He wasn’t alone. Many others were striving for the same goal. But he thought they were going about it the wrong way. “You don’t know what a real revolution is. If you did, you wouldn’t use that word.” This is what Malcolm told the audience in Detroit during his “Message to the Grass Roots” address. He continued:

“Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise, revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, ‘I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.’ No, you need a revolution. Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms, as Rev. Cleage was pointing out beautifully, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’? You don’t do that in a revolution. You don’t do any singing, you’re too busy swinging.”

Malcolm and others were trying to change the very structure of civil rights in America. Me and you? We’re not striving for anything as monumental as that. We’re trying to learn more, to get better at what we do and be better people. But while our end goal is different from the civil rights campaigners, the method for inciting radical change is the same; revolution.

In my mind revolution is not a by-word for violence. It doesn’t mean wanton destruction and reckless behaviour. Revolution simply means action. And not just any sort of action. It means high leverage action. Deeds that offer an exponential return for the effort expended. It means evaluating the obstacles between ourselves and our desired destinations and taking them down with several carefully placed shots. It is purposeful, deliberate, powerful and effective action.

If we take a look at our lives and how we’re living, can we honestly say that we aren’t just singing the song of revolution? Can we truly say that we are swinging, taking action? Are we doing, or just talking and thinking about doing?

Malcolm knew it, and I hope we can realise and remember it too: a revolution, no matter how big or small, requires concrete action. It’s less about singing, and more about swinging. It’s not about talking, appearances, and posturing. It’s about creating momentum through intentional movement. And in a world in which it is more important to be seen doing something than it is to actually do a thing, real action truly is revolutionary.