Ballot or the Bullet

"They don't have to pass civil rights legislation to make a Polack an American," said Malcolm X "The Ballot or the Bullet," a speech he made on April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio. In the speech, he uses colorful language and straight talk to drive his messages surrounding voting rights, self-defense, and what he believed were worthwhile goals of the Civil Rights Movement home to his audience. 

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    Ballot or the Bullet Drawing of Malcolm X speaking StudySmarterMalcolm X speaking, pixabay.

    Summary of The Ballot or the Bullet

    Malcolm X begins "The Ballot or the Bullet" by announcing that he'll explain what he believes the next steps of the Civil Rights Movement should be. He tells the crowd that they first need to set aside differences to focus on their common issue – the white man. In "The Ballot or the Bullet," Malcolm X clarifies that African Americans have no inherent bias toward the white man; they are "anti-exploitation . . . anti-degradation . . . [and] anti-oppression" and that, if white Americans take issue with being considered a problem, all they have to do is stop treating African Americans in those ways. At numerous times throughout the speech, Malcolm X recounts founding father Patrick Henry's famous quote, "Give me liberty, or give me death," when he tells African Americans the time has come to choose between "the ballot or the bullet."

    Inherent: an adjective describing something of a central and permanent nature.

    Malcolm X states that, since 1964 was an election year, it was the year for African Americans to stand up and show the United States government they would no longer wait for the rights they deserve. Malcolm asserts that he and other African Americans are not Americans because they are fighting for the rights that other Americans already have.

    This portion of Malcolm X's speech brings to mind Frederick Douglass's famous speech "What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?" given on July 5, 1852. Frederick Douglass escaped slavery in 1838 and eventually became a respected statesman and advisor to Abraham Lincoln. Douglass received an invitation to speak at a Fourth of July celebration in his hometown, and the speech he gave called out the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom as a country while millions of its residents are enslaved.

    In "The Ballot or the Bullet," Malcolm outlines the power of the African American vote, saying, "when white people are evenly divided, and black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who's going to sit in the White House." He notes that politicians are more aware of this fact than African Americans, so they tell African Americans whatever will secure their vote.

    He states that African Americans continue to struggle because the Democrats and Republicans work together to deny African Americans their rights. Because of this, Malcolm X believes all African Americans must join together to bypass the United States government and take their grievances to the United Nations as a human rights rather than civil rights issue.

    Malcolm asserts that African Americans have earned their rights because they've secured massive wealth for the United States by working for free as enslaved people. In addition, many African American men have fought and died in each war the United States has been involved in. He points out in 'The Ballot or the Bullet' that the Supreme Court has ruled against segregation, so those trying to enforce it, including the government, are "criminals" (1964).

    In a speech on May 18, 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, "To give victory to the right, not bloody bullets, but peaceful ballots only are necessary."1 What, if anything, do you think Malcolm X hopes to accomplish by quoting Abraham Lincoln and Patrick Henry and establishing African American protests as legal according to the Supreme Court?

    Malcolm X closes by defining his goal as a Black Nationalist who wants African Americans to gain political, economic, and social control over their communities. He says non-violence is foolish when an opponent approaches with violence. African Americans have a constitutional right to own guns and defend themselves from being attacked by the white man. Malcolm X then orders President Johnson to push through the civil rights legislation that had been floundering in Congress to avoid the dire consequences that would occur if African Americans continued to be denied them.

    Black Nationalism: an ideology that African Americans should separate from white America and form their own institutions.

    Ballot or the Bullet Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act StudySmarterA photograph of legislators and civil rights leaders looking on as Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, pixabay.

    The Ballot or the Bullet Analysis

    Malcolm X delivered "The Ballot or the Bullet" shortly before leaving the United States to travel through North Africa and the Middle East. His views in this speech reflect the beliefs he held before completing his Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. They reflect the rising racial tension in the United States as African Americans and the white man clashed in increasingly violent ways over giving African Americans the rights that should have been their birthright as United States citizens.

    "The Ballot or the Bullet" is delivered in an urgent and angry tone. In the speech, Malcolm X states, "It isn't that time is running out – time has run out." He observes that the United States has reached its boiling point, demonstrated by the increasing use of weapons in confrontations. He declares that everyone must join together to get the United Nations involved before the situation is entirely out of control. He points out that if the government can't bring whoever killed "four little girls while they were praying" to justice, then it is either unwilling to help them or entirely incapable.

    Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair were killed when a bomb detonated in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. It was the third bombing in 11 days after Birmingham received a federal order to integrate its schools. It took decades for the men involved to be prosecuted as FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, prevented their prosecution in 1968.

    Malcolm X uses a combination of logic and emotion to appeal to his audience. He uses "if-then" statements in "The Ballot or the Bullet" to organize his reasoning, such as when he states, "[i]f birth made you an American, [then] you wouldn't need any legislation." Malcolm X analyzes why following the Democratic Party is not in the best interest of African Americans since the Democrats allow the "Dixiecrats" a place in their organization to retain power. He appeals to the crowd's sense of pride, telling them that their children won't respect them if they don't take a stand against the white man. Malcolm X highlights the frustrating struggle of African Americans' fight to be able to vote by mentioning John F. Kennedy's desire to force Cuba to have democratic elections.

    Dixicrats: a southern segregationist faction of the Democratic Party.

    The Effect of the Speech The Ballot or the Bullet

    The early 1960s shocked the nation with multiple reports of violence against African Americans. As a result, they began to lose hope that non-violent intervention was a reasonable goal. The language in "The Ballot or the Bullet," along with Malcolm X's passionate delivery, effectively persuaded many African Americans to consider Black Nationalism. It can be argued that groups such as The Black Panthers, who adopted many of the beliefs in "The Ballot or the Bullet," were formed due to this speech.

    On the other hand, "The Ballot or the Bullet" alienated white Americans. The media misconstrued Malcolm X's calls for self-defense as calls for violence. Publicly, his criticisms of the system fell on mostly deaf ears. Civil rights leaders questioned whether the messages in "The Ballot or the Bullet" were shared in the most effective manner.

    The Ballot or the Bullet Black Panther March StudySmarterA march led by the Black Panthers, Wikimedia Commons.

    The Black Panther Party was organized in 1966 in California to combat police brutality, and it eventually spread to many other parts of the country. Although their outspoken beliefs in self-defense and gun ownership branded them a militant group, they created much-needed social programs for their communities, such as health clinics and free breakfast programs.

    Importance of The Ballot or the Bullet Speech

    "The Ballot or the Bullet" is listed as one of the most important speeches Malcolm X ever gave because:

    • "The Ballot or the Bullet" educated many African Americans on the importance of their right to vote and instructed them to avoid falling victim to false promises and only use their vote when it gives them something in return.
    • He explains to the crowd that self-determination is the key to success. In his speeches to African Americans, taking control over their destinies was a recurring theme.
    • "The Ballot or the Bullet" was a public acknowledgment of Malcolm X's break from the Nation of Islam, a Black Nationalist group of Muslims. He used this speech to express his desire to work with other civil rights leaders. Unlike when he was a member of the Nation of Islam, he was open to collaboration with anyone serious about getting African Americans the rights they deserved. By doing so, he gained a wider audience and additional credibility.

    The Ballot or the Bullet Quotes

    One of them makes believe he's for you, and he's got it fixed where the other one is so tight against you, he never has to keep his promise.

    Malcolm X asserts that the Democrats and Republicans work together to thwart the interests of African Americans.

    Let the world know how bloody his [Uncle Sam's] hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that's practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet.

    Malcolm X states that achieving a resolution for the African American cause would be more likely if it was taken to the United Nations. He calls out America's double standards and wants the world to see the reality behind the mask of its ideals.

    We [Muslim Mosque, Inc.] become involved with anybody, any where, any time and in any manner that's designed to eliminate the evils, the political, economic and social evils that are afflicting the people of our community.

    This statement exemplifies how Malcolm X's thinking began to shift concerning the Civil Rights Movement after leaving the Nation of Islam and continued down this path while on his pilgrimage to Mecca. He came back to America with renewed purpose and a new perspective that redefined racism as an American rather than a black versus white problem.

    Ballot or the Bullet - Key Takeaways

    • "The Ballot or the Bullet" is a speech made by Malcolm X in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 3, 1964.
    • "The Ballot or the Bullet" discusses the power of the African American vote and charges the United States government with conspiring against allowing African Americans to achieve their due rights.
    • "The Ballot or the Bullet" asks African Americans to put aside their differences and work together to redefine their civil rights as human rights so they can plead their case to the United Nations.
    • Malcolm X emphasizes Black Nationalism as a way to help African Americans gain political, economic, and social control over their communities.
    • Although "The Ballot or the Bullet" advocates self-defense, it discusses non-violent ways of achieving equal rights for African Americans.

    1 Ratcliffe, Susan, Ed. Oxford Essential Quotations, 4th Ed. Oxford Reference. 2016.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Ballot or the Bullet

    What is the tone of "The Ballot or the Bullet"?

    The tone of "The Ballot or the Bullet" is both urgent and angry.

    What are the main points of "The Ballot or the Bullet"?

    The main points of "The Ballot or the Bullet" are:

    • The power of the African American vote
    • Self-determination is the key to African American success
    • Democrats and Republicans work together to conspire against the advancement of African Americans' rights
    • African Americans must join together to redefine civil rights violations as human rights violations in order to take their case to the United Nations

    Who was the audience of "The Ballot or the Bullet"?

    "The Ballot or the Bullet" was delivered at a church in Cleveland, Ohio, to a crowd that included African Americans and white Americans.

    Why did Malcolm X deliver "The Ballot or the Bullet"?

    Malcolm X delivered "The Ballot or the Bullet" to foster a relationship with other civil rights leaders and announce his desire to work with all groups of African Americans after leaving the Nation of Islam.

    What is meant by "the ballot or the bullet"?

    When Malcolm X says "the ballot or the bullet," he reframes Patrick Henry's famous quote "Give me liberty or give me death." He also references Abraham Lincoln's statement, "To give victory to the right, not bloody bullets, but peaceful ballots only, are necessary," from his speech on May 18, 1858.

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