The Ballot or The Bullet by Malcolm X

| August 4, 2015


The speech The Ballot or The Bullet by Malcolm X was delivered by Malcom X, a militant African American civil rights activist in April in Detroit, Michigan. It was a response to a famous speech delivered a month earlier by Martin Luther King Jr., titled I Have a Dream. Malcolm’s speech passes off as one of the greatest speeches of all time, just like that of Martin Luther King Jr. However; the speech is unique in its radical flavor and appeal for violent seizure of civil rights for black Americans. In it, he endeavors to distance himself from the Nation of Islam while at the same time reaching out to moderate civil rights leaders. Malcolm also illustrates his support for Black Nationalism and self-defense, a clear indication that he had not made a complete break from the past.

As Terrill observes, Malcolm’s speech is undoubtedly powerful in many respects, key among them eloquence, poetic creativity, a militant tone, emotional appeal for anger in the audience (38). These traits indicate that he was yet to make a break from his past. The speech rouses the audience to anger as part of Malcolm’s far-reaching campaign for the philosophy of Black Nationalism. This paper builds up the aspects of the speech that indicate how Malcolm was distancing himself from the Nation of Islam, reaching out to moderate civil rights leaders, and supporting the Black Nationalism’s ideals of self-defense.

Malcolm distances himself from the Nation of Islam

The Ballot or the Bullet presents a fundamental difference from the Nation of Islam with regard to its advocacy of voting. Rummel observes that members of the Nation of Islam, a group that Malcolm used to campaign for previously, were forbidden from participating in the country’s political process (28). Moreover, Malcolm chose not to get into the debate on religious differences between Muslims and Christians. Unlike during his days in the Nation of Islam (NOI), he instead chose to dwell on experiences that African-Americans of all backgrounds shared.

For instance, the speaker keeps reminding his audience about the acts of violence that were committed against African Americans across the country for over 400 years. Using this information, he ensures that the contemporary tribulations can resonate in people’s minds as a continuation of transgressions that have been going on for many centuries. It should be noted that Malcolm was delivering his speech against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities against supporters of the civil rights movement during the early 1960s. Terrill observes that it is also during this time that Malcolm severed ties with the Nation of Islam. As Terrill points out, the impression being created is this speech is that the ideals of Black Nationalism surpass any religious views (50).

Reaching out to moderate civil rights leaders

It should also be borne in mind that apart from distancing himself from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X’s other aim was to reach out to moderate civil rights leaders. Sales points out that in these efforts, he not only trounced on the ideals of the Nation of Islam, he also explained why these leaders needed to embrace the ideology of Black Nationalism. He, as well as everyone he was addressing, knew that freedom had to be achieved at a very high cost, and people had to choose between liberty and death. People had to choose between the ballot and the bullet. Therefore, it was not surprising that many African Americans were being jailed, physically harmed, and even killed for participation in the protests. Yet there was no guarantee that any substantial change was going to occur in the long run, particularly if the debate centered on which one between Christianity and Islam was superior.

Malcolm sounded very angry when referring to the feeling of despair among African Americans who questioned the black man’s ability to bring about social change. According to Sales, Malcolm seems to imply that preoccupation with religious difference was to blame for conflicts among African-Americans in their fight for civil rights. Ostensibly, Malcolm has a very big problem with not just the white political class, which is hypocritically endeavoring to continue segregationist policies against the country’s black population, but also with black people who create religious enclaves for selfish interests.

In his speech, it is clear that Malcolm understands the rhetorical problem of control in his endeavor to entice moderates into his camp. Meanwhile, he cleverly turns this challenge into an opportunity to gear up anger among African Americans on the one hand and fear in white Americans on the other. Sales notes that at the height of the civil rights movement, many African Americans were questioning whether they actually had sufficient level of control to bring about social change (37). The inequalities existing in the American society since the time African Americans were shipped into the New World were simply mind-boggling. The key challenge for Malcolm X and his Black Nationalism rhetoric was reassuring the African American community that the best solution to their plight could only be found in adopting an aggressive revolutionary approach similar to the independence struggle in Africa and Asia.

To win over moderate civil rights leaders, Malcolm grossly downplays the might of all US tanks, claiming that all the country’s weapons have been rendered effective in Korea and Vietnam. Condit keenly notes how Malcolm, to prove his point, points out that in Korea, the US was defeated by the country’s rice farmers, who had nothing to use in defense but ‘a rifle, some gym shows, and a bowl of rice’ (304). For Malcolm, such as the power of anger and hope that the modesty of one’s weaponry does not deter him from winning over US tanks and napalm. With such rhetoric, Malcolm seems fully armed to instill confidence in the African American on the need to fight for their freedom. He endeavors not only to offer the African American community a lasting solution to their problems, but also to empower them to make the change happen.

In order to instill anger in the moderates, Malcolm understands the need to make them understand that the solution to their contemporary problem lies in either ‘the bullet or the ballot’. In other words, the people have to be accorded full citizenship and voting rights or resort to armed struggle, just like their brothers in Africa. For Malcolm, it is wrong for the Nation of Islam to prevent its members from participating in the political process, since this only reinforces the notion of the Black man’s position as a second class citizen. In this regard, he had to bear in mind the racial composition of his audience, which, was supposedly African American. However, notes Sales, a unique problem arose, that of carrying the message over to integrationists, majority who were moderates (49). In order to understand this problem, one has to consider the fact that Malcolm X was a separatist. Meanwhile, Malcolm dealt with this problem by making his intention clear; his targeted audience was the African Americans wherever they were across the country.

Malcolm’s support for Black Nationalism and self-defense

A critical analysis of the speech clearly shows that the speaker’s aim was to persuade his audience to take the courage and take their destiny into their hands by demanding social change by all means. This, according to Malcolm, would best be achieved by embracing Black Nationalism. The choice of words and the poetic flair used is meant to inspire African Americans into relying on themselves in matters of social change and not the politicians in Washington. Malcolm is keen to portray the white government as one that is full of corrupt people who only want to maintain the status quo. Rummel points out that Malcolm’s solution for this problem was self-defense within the framework of Black Nationalism (107). With such words, Malcolm hoped to not only trigger a rebellion but to also sustain it until freedom was finally achieved. His hope, which he intended to convey to his audience, was that such a rebellion would surely bring about the sort of change that every African American desired. With such a noble underlying goal in mind, Malcolm set out to explain how all this was a possible mission, especially with the power of anger in mind.

At the beginning of the speech, Malcolm X strives to connect with the audience before explaining his intention to replace his erstwhile religious convictions under NOI with the ideology of Black Nationalism. He achieves this partly through greetings and a careful regard to protocol and partly through the acknowledgment of the existence of enemies as part of his audience. The acknowledgment of enemies is particularly striking as an effort to bring everyone on board in the ongoing struggle. According to Rummel, this is unlike in the days of NOI, when such far-reaching political inclusion had been forbidden (116). Such reference makes it possible for a sense of common purpose to resonate in the minds of all the people listening to the speech. This sort of ingenuity brings even the fiercest of critics onto the negotiating table, knowing that their dissent is being genuinely appreciated.

The acknowledgment of the opposition was quickly followed by an introduction of the topic on the civil rights movement, and it is here that the issue of self defense came in. In this vein, he was quick to reiterate that the future clearly pointed towards a choice between the ballot and the bullet. Rummel observes that clearly, Malcolm seems not to have made a break from his militant past (102). Such a strategy enables the audience relate with the theme of the speech. In what seems like a rare stroke of skill, X draws on the relationship between the ballot and the right to vote. Indeed, this is an issue with which every African American relates rather well, considering that this minority has been denied the right to vote for many centuries.

The speaker lives true to the title of his speech presenting himself as an angry person throughout the speech. Sales observes that the anger is a clear manifestation of the mood that was set in Black Nationalism in order to create a sense of urgency in defending the rights of all African-Americans (18). The bullet symbolizes the dark side of the country’s civil rights struggle, which was ongoing at the time the speech was delivered. With such a vivid introduction, it is impossible for any member of the audience to lose interest in what the speaker is going to say next. Having introduced the audience to the topic, Malcolm bravely used poetic references to make his ideas on Black Nationalism clearly known. In this regard, the people do not have difficulties figuring out what the speaker is going to say next, and most importantly, what the speaker expects of them.

In efforts to ensure that the feelings of the need for self-defense are properly passed across, Malcolm gives insights into not just the problems of African Americans but also his own. No wonder he told the audience to listen not just to the speech that he was going to give but also the things he was going to say about himself. Malcolm reveals to his audience that he is yet to break from the past by asserting that “I am not a politician. I am not even a student of politics (5). This is because all along his public life, Malcolm has refused to associate with both democrats and Republicans, leave alone the ideals of Americanism. Such remarks would undoubtedly alienate the speaker, and by extension, the audience, from the country’s political class, who are dominantly constituted by white people. A similar strategy is applied in the speaker’s efforts to steer clear of any religious debate. Malcolm X strongly believes that issues of religion are between an individual and his creator. He says: “Islam is my religion and my religion is my personal business with my creator” (1). For him, discussions on which religion is the ideal one are unnecessary because they only lead to disagreements and extremist views.

Through poetic craftsmanship, Malcolm X is able to show that whatever he is talking about is a universal problem that does not require any form of religious discussions. This aspect of his speech differs in comparison to some of the speeches that X made during his involvement with the Nation of Islam. Additionally, X is able to identify with his listeners in the course of his efforts to dismiss any religious talk. As Sales points out, in spite of the anger in his tone, Malcolm speaks about Muslims, Christians, and all other religions putting aside all their differences and working in harmony in endeavors towards self defense (36).

Meanwhile, at other times, Malcolm moves away from the phrase ‘The ballot or the bullet’, perhaps to avoid overusing it. This seems like an attention-holder aimed at reducing the likelihood of boredom. It is means to ensure that in spite of the anger, the listener is able to hang onto every word being uttered by the minister. In one of the brief breaks from the catchphrase, the minister alludes to the social injustices that have been committed against African Americans in the course of the country’s history. This becomes clear when the speaker starts using the phrase ‘at the hands of the white man’ repetitively. The effect is even more dramatic when these words are in the spoken form. Through constant repetition, a sense of anger build-up is created, and the need for self-defense among African-Americans gains an element of urgency. According to Brown, it is highly likely that the audience must have been greatly moved towards heightened anger when the speaker said ‘now in speaking like this, this is not to mean that we are against the white people’ (118).

The speaker’s tendency to allude to self defense among the Black people must have worked well to supplement his vengeful tone. It would therefore not be surprising to find a thoroughly perturbed and inspired audience in Malcolm X’s Detroit room on the afternoon of July 12, 1964. As Brown indicates, the sense of urgency in what the speaker was saying must have been great, adding to the numerous reasons why this speech turned out to be one of the greatest oratory pieces of all time (119).

A key aspect of Malcolm’s rhetoric strategies involves giving the assurance that the ultimate solution in the civil rights movements does not have to end in violence. The idea here is that self-defense strategies do not have to be bloody Malcolm says: “A revolution is bloody, although America is now in a unique position…. She is the only country in history that is in a position to become embroiled in a bloodless revolution…. All that this country needs to do is give the Black Man everything that is due to him” (7). Malcolm points out that of all revolutions that have ever taken place, the American Revolution was the bloodiest of them all. For X this is one of the reasons why the country should avert a repeat of a very bloody revolution by giving the black people what is rightfully theirs.

Malcolm reiterates that Black Nationalism is not about being anti-white; it is about being anti-exploitation and anti-oppression. Sales notes that the language used clearly indicates that the black man can only stop being anti-white if the white man stops exploiting, oppressing, and degrading him (72). Such rhetoric, when reiterated in a poetic manner, serves to keep the audience highly agitated but within the speaker’s control. The strategy not only keeps the crowd attentive, but also makes everyone feel empowered. Such emotive swings in the audience serve the purpose of ensuring that the speaker adequately addresses the problem of control.

Indications that Malcolm X had not made a complete break from the past

In his speech, Malcolm X launches numerous attacks against the US government so as to fuel anger in the audience. This is the same thing that he has been doing for most of his life, both before joining the Nation of Islam and after breaking ties with the organization. He makes it clear that in the current government, African Americans are just a minority in terms of representation, yet there are 22 million African Americans in the country’s population. This assertion is draws the audience to Malcolm’s penchant for detail and how he employs such information to launch attacks against all white Americans.

Malcolm has always believed that the white man is out to use his cunning ways to lock Black Americans out of political participation. According to Rummel, he refers to this as a long-running ‘con game’ in which the black person is always positioned in the middle (146). A further claim made here is that half of the senators and congressmen from the South are there illegally and unconstitutionally. The reason for this claim is that half of the people residing in the South cannot vote. This forms the core of Malcolm’s message to the people. With such rhetoric, listeners are undoubtedly stirred into believing that it is either the ballot or the bullet as far as their rights are concerned. Such radically negative views against the white people form a part of who Malcolm X is. This perception was shaped profoundly by his childhood memories of his family’s suffering in the hands of white supremacists.

For a long time, Malcolm has been dissatisfied with the changes being implemented by the federal government. In essence, the relevance of his address went far beyond the audience that had congregated to listen to him. His message to the Congress, for instance, was clear. He demanded that any person in the congress who hails from a district or state where people’s voting rights have been violated be expelled from Congress. The audience must have heard him right when he reiterated that the removal of these congressmen and senators would clear the path ahead for change. At no point did Malcolm give any credit to the administration. This clearly paints a picture of a man whose eyes were clearly set on pushing ahead with the goals of Black Nationalism through all possible means.

Novak points out that as always, Malcolm does not forget to remind his people that separation is the best way to go (29). This has always been Malcolm’s view even when he was in the Nation of Islam. It is one of the ideological standpoints that always pitied him against moderate civil rights activists. Malcolm believes that by doing this, it is possible for African Americans to initiate far-reaching change from inside. By the time the speaker is through with his explanation of the ‘con game’ that Democrats and Republicans have been playing on Black Americans, the tone has been set for immense racial hatred against the white people. Since it is against the interests of the country’s political establishment for Negroes to be accorded voting rights, it is clear that nothing less than a revolution would liberate the Negro. Malcolm is of the view that the values of Black Nationalism need to be embraced in the ongoing struggle to liberate African Americans through a revolution. Such extremist views, as always dominate his speech, and they contribute greatly to the contemporary perception of Malcolm X as a militant, separatist, and racist.

All along, this speech draws the attention of the audience into the reality of betrayal that African Americans have experienced in the hands of the predominantly white government. After every point has been clearly communicated, X makes a declaration akin to a warrior song. He literally asks the audience to rise up and demand change either to the ballot or the bullet. For instance, he asserts that the African American has become politically mature and has realized what the ballot is used for. He seems to give an ultimatum to the Congress and everyone else who has had a hand in oppressing African Americans. Clearly, the anger in X’s voice was so protracted that no listener would have seen the likelihood of him going into the negotiation table with the white man regarding how the goals of the civil rights movement would be achieved.

According to Rummel, it was characteristic of Malcom to fail to openly acknowledge any sense of satisfaction in the progress that had been achieved so far (153). In fact, he attacked those who appeared satisfied with the progress made so far by challenging them to live up to the revolutionary spirit. Malcolm told the audience: ‘you have not even made any progress, if what is being given to you is something that you should have had already, that cannot amount to progress’ (4). The denial of rights dates back to the time when the African Americans first came into the US as slaves. That is the time when successive administrations started taking advantage of them by denying them even the most basic of human rights. In such a situation, it would be rather premature for any leader to claim that progress has been achieved. Such a comment would no doubt infuriate Malcolm and like-minded Black Nationalists.

Malcolm’s brush with the law spans back into his teenage years. In this speech, his anti-establishment nature reveals itself when he asks his people to prevent the police and the administration for interfering with their agitation for equality. In a society where the US presents itself as the leader of the free world, a bloody confrontation with the police would present the administration in a negative light. Yet for Malcolm, the villain would be the administration, whose hypocritical ways would be brought to light. The US would be seen to have completely lost the moral authority to stand up in front of all other societies in the world. He wonders why the US has the nerve to talk about the racial segregation in South Africa or the holocaust in Nazi Germany, while more pressing problems of the same kind exist at home. If anything, the case of the US needs to be presented to the United Nations for arbitration.

Malcolm adds that rather than remain complacent about the progress being made in the struggle, black Americans should wonder why the civil rights legislation has not been put in place. Then they should swing into action and protest. Malcolm insisted that this should not be taken to mean that he was advocating for violence. Rather, he insisted that African Americans should use violent means whenever violence has been meted out against them. Rummel notes that this argument was not only logical but also strongly appealing to the audience (159). Malcolm capitalized on the desire among African Americans for emotional encouragement and reassurance on the need to act on their unpleasant circumstances.

Then there is the clear advocacy on the use of guerilla warfare. This, for Malcolm, was the best alternative to presenting all their complaints to the politicians sitting in Washington. These politicians were the ones who were conspiring against the African Americans. Therefore, taking their complaints to them was like asking for justice from the criminal. He told the crowd ‘you should not take your case to the criminal; you should take the criminal to court’ (3). In this case, the best court consists in taking matters into their own hands and going to war with the government. This is where the guerilla warfare comes in. In what follows this declaration, Malcolm goes at length to prove that the powerful and mighty are not masters of guerilla warfare. Across the world, those who have been oppressed and trampled take over the fight at the fall of darkness, soon after the aggressor’s tanks have fallen silent. Therefore, it was only prudent that the civil rights movement struck the system when it was least expected to do so, just like it happens during guerilla warfare.

For Malcolm X, 1964 was the year of the ballot or the bullet. The reason he gave was that African Americans had listened to the trickery, false promises, and lies of the white people for far too long. What he said regarding the level of disenchantment and disillusionment rung true in the minds of his audience. Knowing this, Malcolm X was keen to keep the anger burning so that it could be used as a source of motivation when the time to fight the white man came. For him, the African Americans would have to choose whether they would fight him using the ballot or the bullet.

To exhibit the level frustration among the African Americans, Malcolm knew that he had to present himself as an angry man. He had to appear in an explosive mood to symbolize the time-bomb on which Americans were sitting by failing to accord the necessary civil and human rights to the African Americans. He contended that the contemporary society was in a more explosive mood than ‘all the atomic bombs that the Russians can ever invent’.

The militant in Malcolm comes out when he says that the white man fears separation more than he fears integration. Ironically, notes Novak, it is this ‘activist flair’ that has landed him in deep trouble from many quarters, ranging from the law enforcement agencies to his former allies at the Nation of Islam (31). He sets the pace for anger by carefully explaining what segregation. For him, segregation works out in such a way that the white man puts the black man away from him, but at the same time close enough to ensure that he remains within his jurisdiction. Any African American listening to such sentiments would feel angered by the antics of the white man. Many would support X’s call for separation, if only to ensure a decisive end to political, social, and economic oppression. Malcolm’s tone resembles that of an archetypical activist. He focuses only on the worst-case scenarios and perceives the administration in a very negative light all the time. For instance, he insists that even if African Americans were finally accorded equal treatment with the whites and be given permission to establishments similar to the ones being used by whites, they would still remain vulnerable to manipulation. However, through separation, African Americans would do carry on with their economic activities on their own and do as they pleased.


In summary, Malcolm X’s speech was a great one, one whose tone vengeful and inflammatory from the beginning to the end. At the start of this speech, X is angry about the current circumstance of African Americans, and offers the solution of a revolution spearheaded under the Black Nationalism ideology. The anger is sustained using rhetorical strategies, poetic repetition of important catchphrases, and a flare-up of anger.

As the speech comes to a close, X wisely reiterates that ‘our’ religion is Black Nationalism. He stirs up the emotions of the audience in the end just like he did in the beginning. This he does by presenting himself as an angry man who will go for nothing less than a revolution similar to the one happening in Africa and Asia. In short, his speech brings about the eloquence, poetic creativity, a militant tone in the speaker. Malcolm succeeds in instilling anger in African Americans and fear in the white administrators in equal measure.


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Works Cited

Brown, Kevin Malcolm X: His life and legacy, Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 1995.

Condit, Celeste “Malcolm X and the Limits of the Rhetoric of Revolutionary Dissent”, Journal of Black Studies, 23.3 (1993): 291-313.

Malcolm, X The Ballot or the Bullet, Delivered 12 April, 1964 in Detroit (USA).

Novak, David. “Engaging in Parrhesia in a Democracy: Malcom X as a Truth-teller”, Southern Communication Journal, 71.1 (2006): 25-43.

Rummel, Jack Malcolm X: Militant Black Leader, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.

Sales, William. From civil rights to Black liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American unity, London: Routledge, 1994.

Terrill, Robert. “Protest, Prophecy, and Prudence in the Rhetoric of Malcolm X”, Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 4.1 (2001): 25-53.

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