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The Ballot or the Bullet Summary

Summary and Analysis of The Ballot or The Bullet by Malcom X

“The Ballot or the Bullet” is a speech delivered at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio by American political figure and human rights activist Malcolm X on April 3rd, 1964. Delivered during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in America, by Malcolm X, the speech highlights the importance of African Americans fighting for their electoral rights in order to obtain liberty and self-determination. It is listed as the seventh most influential speech delivered in America in the twentieth century and also portrays a marked change in Malcolm X’s ideology and rhetoric following his separation from the Nation of Islam, which is reflected in the speech.

The Ballot or the Bullet | Summary

Malcolm X begins the speech by addressing his audience in a distinct and remarkable manner, by pointing out the presence of both his friends and enemies in the audience as he just cannot believe that everybody present is a friend, and does not want to exclude anybody. He comes straight to the central question he wishes to address in the speech –

“The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?”.

He knows only one answer, “the ballot or the bullet.” Before delving further into the speech, he specifies his position as a Black, Muslim man, but clarifies that his religion is not a matter of concern in the speech and does not affect his politics. He is not here to discuss the religious differences between him and his audience, as the important thing is for the Blacks in America to keep aside their differences and politically unite against their common oppressor – the white man. Racial discrimination at the hands of white men is a problem that all blacks, regardless of age, sex, or religion face. However, Malcolm clarifies that he is not anti-white, just “anti-exploitation”, anti-degradation”, and “anti-oppression”. If blacks do not unite as a community and take drastic political action soon, the choice left in front of them would either be a ballot or a bullet.

Malcolm X reminds his audience that the year that the speech is being delivered, 1964, has explosive political potential in US history as it is an election year when all white politicians will be back at the doors of black people begging for votes, making false promises that they do not intend to fulfill.

The current population of blacks in America, however, have had enough, and do not intend to turn the other cheek when slapped on one i.e., preach non-violence even when faced with unjust racial violence. Malcolm insists that the blacks in America have never truly been “Americans”, denied basic civil rights and liberties despite building the very foundations of the nation through centuries of slave labor, unlike the Europeans and the whites who manage to get full citizenship rights the minute they turn up on US soil. Had their American identity been guaranteed by their birth on American soil, they would not have had to fight for equality and basic civil rights such as the right to vote. He, along with the 22 million blacks in the country are the “victims of Americanism”, a victim who sees not the American dream, but an “American nightmare”. The new generations of blacks, however, are waking up to political maturity and realizing the power that they hold in the electoral mechanism of the country as swing voters i.e., a group of voters whose votes can swing the election results in the favor of one party or the other, deciding the outcome of the election. It is this vote that has been wasted ignorantly in the last election when the Democrats came to power, who conveniently forgot about the promises made to the blacks as soon as they entered the White House.

Malcolm rails at the audacity of the political parties lauding their own leaders for the “development” that they have brought within the black community, while liberal blacks go on defending or excusing them. He sharply criticizes the Democrats who have a majority in the House and the Senate, and have still waited until the last moment to propose the Civil Rights Bill which would grant the right to vote to every adult irrespective of race, sex, or place of birth. Now that the bill is proposed, it is halted because of the filibustering attempts of the Dixiecrats, who are nothing but a group of the Southern Democrats themselves, part of the Democratic party. They hold positions of power inside the party because of their seniority, which comes from being elected from the Southern states, the majority of whose population, being black, do not have the right to vote. This violates the fundamental democratic principles that America is said to be based upon, and most of these Dixiecrats are senators in an “unconstitutional” manner. Their repeated attempts at filibustering reflect their anxiety about being ousted by legitimate black representatives as soon as the blacks get the right to vote.

The Northern states use another strategy of keeping blacks from gaining political power, by rearranging district lines every time the black population of a region grows large enough to have electoral consequences, thus keeping political power limited to the white man only. Thus, the African-Americans are “faced not with a segregationist conspiracy”, but with a “government conspiracy”. The senators and congressmen who are blocking the Civil Rights Bill are all parts of the government. It is the government of America “that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country.” The country, its democracy, and its liberals have failed the black man.
Now, Malcolm underlines the steps necessary to proceed from this state of disenfranchisement faced by the blacks. The first is to find new allies and reinterpret the entire civil-rights struggle. According to him, the political philosophy of Black Nationalism is a way of reimagining the civil rights movement that includes blacks in an unapologetic, uncompromising manner. The new generation of black children no longer believes in the philosophy of “turning the other cheek”, and are adopting violent measures as a means to gain equal rights. In such a context, Black Nationalism promises equality of opportunity, which is the bare minimum due to the black community after their previous generations have “invested their sweat and blood” through slavery for three hundred and ten years to make America what it is today. The blacks are the ones who have made America rich. Today, the blacks collected in the audience have meager earnings if counted individually, but taken together, the community has considerable wealth. Their collective salaries are enough to make the white man rich, which has been the case during centuries of slavery when the blacks worked for nothing, and their bloody contribution only made the white man rich. Similar has also been the case with the military, where black soldiers have always enlisted more than whites. Shedding their blood for a country that does not grant them basic human rights. For black nationalists, civil rights mean –

“Give it to us now. Don’t wait for next year. Give it to us yesterday, and that’s not fast enough”.

Here, Malcolm points out the legitimacy of the demands of black people in America, demands of rights that are fundamental and inalienable to every human in a civilized society. While demanding something that is legitimately theirs, it is important for blacks to remember that those who obstruct these demands are criminals. As the Supreme Court had outlawed Segregation, all states and government policies that still help maintain the practice are essentially criminal. The law is on the side of the blacks, and now it is they who need to take a stand for themselves before their children grow up and are ashamed of their parents’ inaction. Malcolm urges the audience to only adopt nonviolence when their enemies are also nonviolent, stressing the importance of returning violence when faced with it too. When they know that they are within their legal legal rights, moral integrity, and justice, it is important to stand by their demands and die for them, if necessary, while taking the enemy down with themselves.
Malcolm X now introduces his audience to the arena of human rights, the violation of which falls under the jurisdiction of a global court in the United Nations, where their demands can be supported by their other third-world allies.

As long as the blacks limit themselves to the understanding that their demands fall under the arena of civil rights, they are under the jurisdiction of “Uncle Sam” – an embodiment of the American nation in the form of the rich white man who reaps the benefits of oppressing and exploiting blacks in the country. Under America’s own jurisdiction, the grievances of blacks would never be listened to, but in the world court, they would have the support of their “brothers” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It’s time to expose Uncle Sam’s bloody hands to the world court, darkened with the blood of millions of blacks across generations. Malcolm does not think that wealth is more important or powerful than the right to vote, as he points out the numerous instances where rich white nations have been checked by the collective consensus of poorer nations within the UN, as every nation, regardless of their wealth or power, have one vote. The ballot is thus more important than money.

At this point, for the first time in this speech, Malcolm X consciously uses the term “African American” for identifying himself and the 22 million blacks of the country, who are nothing more than “Africans who are in America.” He stresses the importance of recognizing and identifying themselves as Africans, as it will get them further in their struggle than the term “Negro” ever has. Their opponent is no more than a silly white man, who fails to recognize a black man as soon as he dons a turban on his head. His “bias and prejudice are making him lose his mind, his intelligence, every day.” He is frightened of the black masses slowly awakening to the dawn of their freedom. Malcolm briefly talks about the greater landscape of world politics where the military power and threat of powerful nations like America and Russia are being ironically neutralized by each other’s nuclear potential, keeping them both in check. In such a time, guerrilla warfare which is practiced by the colored masses across the world while fighting against first-world countries has unprecedented success rates. Guerrilla is not the white man’s terrain, and he cannot win in such a battle, not having the heart for it. This method of localized, individual, traditional warfare frightens the white man.

Malcolm X again reminds his audience of his religious identity as a Muslim, and the fact that this identity is kept separated from his political activism where he is just a black man fighting for his rights, religious differences notwithstanding. He defines black nationalism as a movement for the black man’s economic and political autonomy, and to achieve this, it is important to treat one’s ballot like a bullet and use it judiciously. The political philosophy of black nationalism is being taught across religious and secular groups fighting for civil rights in America. The blacks are tired of compromising and negotiating. Now is the time to fight until they overcome. The economic discourse of black nationalism emphasizes that only blacks should control the economy of the black community. While it may seem, separationist, it makes sense in the wider economic context of the nation where blacks are not allowed to control businesses in white-dominated areas either, heightening the importance of self-determination and self-empowerment even in the economic context.

The social philosophy of black nationalism seeks to remove “the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fibre” of the black community. The blacks themselves have to raise the standards of their own community instead of trying to join one in which they are not welcome. Thus, black nationalism essentially emphasizes the importance of the black man re-evaluating himself and not the white man. It is not possible to change the white man’s mind as there’s no conscience remaining in him today. He eliminates a practice not because it is evil or immoral, but only because it threatens his own interests. Since the blacks cannot change the white minds about themselves, it is time to “change their own minds about each other.” He stresses the importance of practicing black nationalism as a political philosophy as it will help the black community gain independence, self-determination, and self-empowerment, lessening their dependence on the white community. The number of organizations practicing and preaching black nationalism will rise, and Malcolm and his fellow black nationalists plan on holding a convention when the movement has gathered enough strength. This would be followed by a seminar and discussions, and if the need arises, a Black Nationalist party would be formed in time, and even an army if it is required. “It’ll be the ballot or the bullet. It’ll be liberty or it’ll be death.” He urges his fellows not to let any white man teach him about freedom. They don’t need any white politicians, senators, congressmen, or even a court, to give them freedom.

Malcolm and his fellow black nationalists are willing to work with anyone who is :

“genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent.”

They’ll hold voter registration drives, rent strikes, and school boycotts, even though Malcolm personally does not believe in the integrational cause of the last because he does not think it will succeed. However, he will still support the boycott of segregated schools as they raise children with bigoted, “crippled” minds. He defines a segregated community as a community whose economic, political, and infrastructural institutions are all controlled by members outside the community, which is the case with the whites holding power over all important positions relating to the black community. This will always place the blacks at the lower end of the bargain, thus highlighting the need for self-empowerment and self-reliance. Moreover, it is important to remember that the whites are more afraid of separation than of integration, and will let the blacks get integrated faster than letting them form a separate, autonomous state, making it an ideal weakness to exploit while fighting segregation.

Lastly, Malcolm X addresses the issue of weapon ownership, reminding his audience that Article 2 of the Constitutional Amendment grants everybody the right to own a rifle or a shotgun for self-defense. So, when the government fails to protect its black citizens, the blacks must do so themselves. This does not mean that they should go out and hunt down white folks, but only use them for defending themselves and seeking justice for the crimes against them that the government has not provided them justice for.

In 1964, if the blacks have to wait around for white senators to filibuster the bill proposing their rights, it is a shameful reality for the black community. The time for waiting, for peace marches holding placards with white men is gone, and now is the time for drastic, and if necessary, violent action. If the government wants to stop this “non-nonviolent” army, they should do their job and halt the filibuster, because the black nationalists are not going to wait anymore. He ends the speech by emphatically insisting that “In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet.”

The Ballot or the Bullet | Historical Context

The speech is delivered at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement in America when a bill proposed by President John F Kennedy granting universal adult suffragette is blocked by the Southern wing of the Democratic party i.e., the Dixiecrats, through filibustering, an action that obstructs the progress of a bill in a legislative assembly, even though it does not technically interfere in the procedure.

The speech comes just after Malcolm X’s renunciation of his position as the spokesperson of the Nation of Islam, and publicly separating from it on 8th March 1964, less than a month before the speech. The Nation, given its rigid religious philosophy, forbade its members from taking part in any political activity, which Malcolm detested. The conscious decision to keep his religion separate from his politics is seen repeatedly in the speech.

The Ballot or the Bullet | Analysis

The speech is one of the most influential political speeches in US history, keeping with Malcolm X’s reputation as a passionate and charismatic speaker. He exposes the inherent racism and hypocrisy of the US system of government in the 60s, some tenets of which exist even today. The rhetorical devices and strategies Malcolm uses in this speech are fascinating and supremely influential, helping it gather the fame that it is known for. These rhetorical strategies are key to the speech’s success and instill in his audience the feeling of impassioned, collectivistic fervor that he seeks to generate.

One of the most important strategies that Malcolm X uses with extreme effectiveness in this speech is identity politics. He begins the speech by addressing his audience in a way that separates his friends from his enemies, recognizing the existence of both and in effect, marking the boundary that separates both. This begins a politics of inclusion and exclusion, strengthened further by his constant identification with the black audience and the use of the collective pronoun “we” while using “they” while talking about whites, helping the audience identify more strongly within the black community which would strengthen the unity required to fight racial oppression systematically. However, Malcolm does not overlook the complexities of identity while trying to unite his audience, and his stress on his own identity as a Muslim is a reminder that diversity exists within the community itself. However, it is important to keep religious, linguistic, or other such differences aside in this fight against racism that requires people of color to unite.

Repetition is another important rhetorical element of this speech, exemplified in the multiple repetitions of the titular phrase “the bullet or the ballot”. Repeating this phrase that is extremely catchy through its alliteration and fiery in its passionate use of the rhetoric of “justice or violence”, leaves a strong, impassioned imprint on his audience’s mind who will remember the phrase, and with it, the main content of the speech. The speech also uses dramatized language to make itself memorable and influential, successful in both regards. The constant use of the present continuous tense while referring to the political awakening of the blacks serves the purpose of a self-fulfilling prophecy (in this case, a statement) that helps him and his audience visualize the reality that they want, instilling courage, vigor, and optimism. The speech thus thoroughly relies on the appeal to the audience’s emotions, employing passionate expressions and dramatized language to move its audience.

Malcolm uses historical evidence very effectively to rally his cause of black nationalism. Citing centuries of slavery, oppression, segregation, and the denial of basic human and civil rights, he hits all the right chords to be able to make an impression on his audience by drawing on their historical experience. His critique of the Democratic Party and its governance, as well as segregation, breaking down the institutions to expose the racism and hypocrisy behind them, is very thorough, making it an effective tool to win people over to his own cause.
Lastly, his rejection of the absolute non-violence preached by most Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. resonates more with the audience for whom, after facing centuries of racial violence, non-violence sounds like an empty philosophical principle that does not right the wrongs that they have faced. Malcolm’s justification of violence when faced with violence from the enemy is both more pragmatic and helpful, helping his audience connect to him more, ultimately furthering his cause of black nationalism.

The Ballot or the Bullet | Key Issues

Racism – Racism in America, practiced at all institutional levels systematically through segregation, disenfranchisement, economic disempowerment, and overdependence on whites, are key elements of Malcolm X’s speech. He exposes the racism inherent to the political parties, the government, its law, and the machinery protecting it (the police), as well as the courts.
Segregation – The practice of having separate residential areas, schools, hospitals, and other basic infrastructure for whites and blacks, under the guise of protecting the interests of the latter, is an important topic Malcolm addresses in this speech. Segregation produces generations of individuals who are biased and bigoted and perpetuates the oppression of blacks.

Black Nationalism – Malcolm is a supporter of black nationalism, and believes it to be a way of ensuring self-evaluation, self-determination, and self-empowerment in the black community, while also engendering values of economic self-reliance and overall improvement in the social structure.

The Ballot or the Bullet | Significance of the title

The title, “The Bullet or the Ballot”, thematically underlines Malcolm’s key concerns in the speech – the willingness to fight to death for freedom from oppression, and equality of opportunity, economically and politically. The title is alliterative and features consonance, or the repetition of consonants in two or more neighboring words, making the title catchy and memorable.




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