28 pages 56 minutes read

Malcolm X

The Ballot or the Bullet

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1964

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Summary: "The Ballot or the Bullet"

“The Ballot or the Bullet” is a speech that Malcolm X first delivered at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 3, 1964. He also delivered the speech about a week later in Detroit, Michigan, on April 12, 1964. This guide is based on the latter version of this speech.

Malcolm speaks from a personal perspective. He starts by declaring himself a Muslim and by crediting Elijah Muhammad with making him into the man he has become. He acknowledges the differences between himself and the Christian leaders who invited him to speak, but alerts everyone to the cause that both black Christians and black Muslims ought to share in common: black nationalism.

Malcolm defines black nationalism as the idea that black people “should control the politics and the politicians in [their] own community” (Paragraph 4). Economically, black nationalism advocates for black people owning, managing, and controlling their communities’ economies. He points out that those who operate the businesses in black communities do not live in black communities. Therefore, they take revenue out of the community, leaving community members without any capital, which creates ghettos. Meanwhile, white communities expand their wealth with the capital earned in black communities. Therefore, Malcolm tells his listeners that they must start their own businesses, even if they must start small. They must create jobs for those in their community. This way, they won’t have to rely on those who hate them to give them work.

Malcolm criticizes the civil rights movement for not being forceful enough. Clack people need to help themselves, he says, and overlook their differences in favor of recognizing their mutual fight against an enemy who hates them for being black. Black nationalism, he insists, offers the “self-help program” that black people need. Just as people in Africa and Asia are fighting for their independence from colonial rulers by proclaiming nationalist sympathies, black people in America ought to do the same. Colonialism, he asserts, demands the subordination of a group of people to “second-class citizenship,” which is what the United States has done to black Americans (Paragraph 8). The United States, he insists, is as much a colonial power as France and Great Britain are.

Malcolm declares that 1964 will be the decisive year: “the year of the ballot or the bullet” (Paragraph 9). Black people, Malcolm notes, are tired of politicians’ lies. He describes the frustration in these communities as more pressing and explosive than any atomic bomb. He likens black Americans’ fight for freedom against their oppressors to that of colonial America’s fight against the British—although, he argues, black people experience (and have experienced) a more hellish reality than any white colonist faced.

In what is an election year, Malcolm dismisses the notion of party loyalty, seeing little difference between Democrats and Republicans. Neither, he insists, makes any effort to improve black people’s lives. The Democratic Party relies strongly on the black vote, which can determine whether a Democrat will win an election, but the Democrats do not keep their promises to black voters after they win. Malcolm also insists that there is no substantive difference between Northern and Southern Democrats. Moreover, most of the Democratic Party’s power is based in the South, where Southern politicians have a vested interest in suppressing the black vote in order to remain in power. Therefore, Malcolm concludes, it isn’t possible for the black voter to have a true friend in the Democratic Party.

Malcolm asserts that the Unites States requires a revolution. Unlike previous revolutions, this one need not be bloody. The only task required of the United States is to provide black people with the liberties that they are due. Besides, he says, white America would not want another guerilla war, certainly not on its own soil. White Americans are only willing to go to war when they can use bombs and tanks.

Malcolm also eschews the option of fighting for civil rights through American institutions. He wants black people to take their arguments before the United Nations instead, where other nations have appealed for civil rights against their colonial abusers. He declares the United States a hypocritical nation for declaring itself “the leader of the free world,” a nation that “[points its] finger at other countries” while oppressing some of its own citizens (Paragraph 23).

Malcolm concludes by telling his Christian audience that they, who favor integration, and he, who favors separatism, can achieve freedom through “the gospel of black nationalism” (Paragraph 26). Using the example of the evangelist Billy Graham, he says that black leaders should preach about the benefits of supporting one’s own churches, businesses, and political organizations.

He also argues that black people should align themselves with others in the African diaspora who are fighting for freedom. Their cause is the same, despite some white politicians’ attempts to convince black Americans otherwise. To disprove the notion that Africans aren’t interested in the cause of “the American Negro,” Malcolm declares his “intention and plan to make a tour of [the] African homeland” (Paragraph 28). He promises that he will work with any program that seeks to uplift black people and will avail himself to anyone in any city that requires his assistance toward this goal.